LAURELS: Kohl-Arenas Wins Freedom Scholar Award


  • Freedom Scholars receive $250,000 in support of economic and social justice
  • Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, School of Medicine
  • Maisha Winn, School of Education
  • Rebecca Calisi Rodríguez, Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior
  • Luis Fernando Santana, Department of Physiology and Membrane Biology

Erica Kohl-Arenas, faculty director of the UC Davis-based Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life and an associate professor of American studies, is among 12 recipients of $250,000 Freedom Scholar awards.

Erica Kohl-Arenas headshot

This new program from the ​Marguerite Casey Foundation​ in partnership with ​Group Health Foundation provides support for bold scholars who stand at the forefront of movements for economic and social justice.

A scholar of grassroots community development, Kohl-Arenas has worked extensively with immigrant and farmworker communities in California’s Central Valley, and also led research and community engagement in Appalachian coal-mining towns and urban public schools.

She is the author of the award-winning book The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty, which reveals through Central Valley case studies how philanthropy maintains systems of inequality. She is working on a book about intergenerational freedom fighters. 

“The award will allow me to continue research on social movement elders from the 1960s and 1970s ​in conversation with the movements of our time, a project I have been working on for several years,” said Kohl-Arenas, who earned a master’s degree in community development from UC Davis in 1999. “Some funds will be donated to radical movement causes, giving in larger amounts to grassroots organizations that I already support.”

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the College of Letters and Science

Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola headshot

Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, a professor of clinical internal medicine and the founding director of UC Davis Health’s Center for Reducing Health Disparities, recently received the Mexican government’s Ohtli Award for his work in advocating for the rights of Mexican nationals in the United States.

The award is Mexico’s highest honor for individuals who have opened pathways for Mexicans abroad, specifically in the United States. “Ohtli” means “pathway” in the Aztec language.

The presentation took place Sept. 17 at the Consulate General of Mexico in Sacramento during a physically distanced yet intimate ceremony. Guests included Aguilar-Gaxiola’s family, friends, coworkers, associates, consular staff and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

“If you are fortunate enough,” Consul General Liliana Ferrer said, “you will run into truly extraordinary people — like Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola — that change and impact the lives of others in the most special, relevant and beautiful ways, with empathy, specialized knowledge in his field, and unconditional and remarkable kindness for his fellow human being when he or she is in most desperate and urgent need.”

Others who have received the Ohtli at UC Davis: Amagda Pérez, lecture in the School of Law and co-director of the school’s Immigration Law Clinic, 2019; and James F. Smith, longtime law professor, 2010.

Aguilar-Gaxiola was at times tearful as he accepted the medal, lapel pin and certificate in front of about two dozen attendees. He recounted his humble beginnings in a small town in northwest Mexico. “Who would have thought that this youngster who was born and raised and lived in Guamúchil, Sinaloa, up until age 14, would one day receive this extremely important award?” he asked, crediting his wife, Diana, and their four adult children for his success.

The Center for Reducing Health Disparities, where he continues to serve as the director, forges community partnerships to find solutions to the inequities in health access and quality of care. The center’s work covers several demographic groups including Asian American, Black, Latino and LGBTQ populations.

Lately, he has been a persistent voice in raising awareness about how the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected Latinos in California, many of whom are essential workers and cannot afford to take time off for medical care.

Attorney General Becerra called Aguilar-Gaxiola a “superhero” and “great warrior,” and thanked him for improving many people’s lives.

— Edwin Garcia, senior public information officer in Public Affairs at UC Davis Health

Maisha Winn and Lawrence "Torry" Winn in Kings' Facebook post
Maisha Winn pictured with Lawrence “Torry” Winn in Sacramento King’s Dream All-Star Facebook post.

“Continuing the Sacramento Kings’ long tradition of lifting up and highlighting community champions,” the professional basketball team recently bestowed Dream All-Star status upon Maisha Winn and eight other local Black leaders who have positively impacted the Sacramento region.

Winn is a Chancellor’s Leadership Professor and the associate dean for academic programs in the School of Education. She is the co-founder and co-director of the Transformative Justice in Education Center.

Kings staff and community partners chose the Dream All-Stars based on their accomplishments and commitment to championing initiatives that support platforms and opportunity for the Black community.

“It is an honor to celebrate each of these individuals for their tremendous impact on our community fighting for increased access to education and resources, equity and social justice,” said Matina Kolokotronis, the Kings’ chief operating officer.

The Kings highlighted the Dream All-Stars in videos on social media — like this post for Winn on Facebook.

Two of Cell Press’ “100 Inspiring Hispanic/Latinx Scientists in America” are on the UC Davis faculty:

  • Rebecca Calisi Rodríguez, associate professor, Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior, College of Biological Sciences
  • Luis Fernando Santana, professor and chair, Department of Physiology and Membrane Biology, School of Medicine

Cell Press chose the 100 scientists on the basis of their scholarly achievement, mentoring excellence, and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and published the list on Sept. 15, the first day on National Hispanic Heritage Month.

“Our aim in assembling these names is to put an end to the harmful myth that there are not enough diverse scientists to give seminars, serve as panelists, or fill scientific positions,” Cell Press declared. “Although we understand this list is not fully representative of the Hispanic/Latinx scientific community, we hope it will help to change the perception of what a scientist looks like and make our collective image more representative of society at large.”

Rebecca Calisi Rodriguez headshot
Calisi Rodríguez

Calisi Rodríguez studies avian behavior and physiology to uncover how animal brains, including the human brain, can work to facilitate or inhibit reproduction and parental care, particularly under stress. This work in birds and brains accounts for two of the Bs in the name of Calisi Rodríguez’s B3 Lab. The third B is for banter, referring to her work in the art of science communication. As part of Wild Hope Adventures: Puerto Rico, she hosts a series of videos — “I Can Science” — showcasing scientists and their work in that country, and encouraging viewers to consider science careers.

Luis Fernando Santana headshot

Santana, who studies cardiac and vascular biology, recently published a study showing for the first time that a protein known to expand blood vessels — key to controlling conditions like high blood pressure — has different functions in males and females, an outcome that could lead to treatments based on sex. His mentoring of physician-researchers in training, he said, “is truly how I have the largest impact on society.” He added: Training has an amplification effect on the quality and diversity in medicine.”

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