Artist, educator, activist, and School of Public Affairs graduate student Ricky Abilez can officially add “University of Colorado Thomas Jefferson Award winner” to their ever-growing list of titles. The system-level award, which honors students, faculty, and staff members who are committed to advancing public service, education, and the arts, serves as a reminder to Abilez that the work they do matters. Although the specter of slavery looms large over Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, Abilez acknowledges that Jefferson was also known as a tenacious leader in turbulent times. Jefferson’s ambition and confidence are among the positive qualities Abilez aspires to emulate.
“I was raised to fight for what is just and to care about civic responsibility,” said Abilez, who is earning an MPA in Education Policy & Public Policy Analysis. “Sometimes it’s hard to see how the work I’m doing to combat systemic racism and social injustice is making a difference, but this award has helped me realize that even small steps can move us in the right direction.”
When it comes to their personal ambitions, Abilez has many passions. After earning a BFA in Theater Arts from California State University, Fullerton, Abilez started racking up auditions and has worked in regional musical theater in the Los Angeles area for the past six years. Abilez’s love of acting may have inspired their career path, but it was Abilez’s sense of purpose that prompted their participation in organizations such as BLKLST, a coalition committed to providing safety and equity for all BIPOC creatives in the Los Angeles theater community. This desire to make a difference also led Abilez to explore the intersection of art, social justice, and education.
“Many of today’s biggest issues, especially in America, tie back to education—or lack thereof—in some way,” said Abilez. “I became curious about how education can be improved through policy, and that’s when I discovered CU Denver’s unique concentration on this area of study.”
Through the university’s flexible asynchronous program, Abilez has been able to work toward their MPA while remaining in Los Angeles. But their location doesn’t stop them from getting involved on campus—Abilez is involved with the Graduate Student Council (GSC), where they focus on expanding access to resources for graduate students in the field of healthcare. They also acted as co-lead of the Curriculum Action Team, a subgroup of the Equity Task Force, which in 2020 was charged with researching issues of inequity and generating recommendations for how the university could work to overcome structural and environmental barriers to the success of students, faculty, and staff.
In an effort to further immerse themselves in different aspects of education, Abilez participated in a virtual classroom experience through the Global Livingston Institute whose goal is to create equitable, sustainable, and culturally responsive solutions to challenges in the areas of health, economic development, and the environment in East Africa.
“Ricky is a great example of how teachers can learn from their students,” remarked Jamie Van Leeuwen, CEO & Founder of the Global Livingston Institute. “Through both their academic work and their passion for theater, Ricky will work to make the world better.”
Abilez’s altruistic pursuits don’t stop there: They recently started volunteering with the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention non-profit organization for LGBTQ+ young people. They also volunteer with the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) as a public speaking and advocacy coach empowering the formerly unhoused so they can tell their stories to influence policy and public opinion.
While there’s no telling where Abilez’s passions will lead them next, in the words of Jamie Van Leeuwen: They are sure to make the world a better, more equitable place.