Dr. Gena Gunn McClendon has devoted her professional life to serving in the community and empowering vulnerable populations. For her work, McClendon was recently honored with the Ambassador Andrew J. Young Award for Outstanding Ethics, Service, and Commitment to Family and Community.
Given annually by the Ethics Project as part of the National Youth Summit on Education Justice and Leadership, the award recognizes “individuals who have dedicated their lives to serving the community while honoring the family.”
Dr. Christi Griffin, president of the Ethics Project, praised McClendon’s “dedication to the critically important work on voting.” “Through her research, writing, and collaboration, Dr. McClendon is laying groundwork for voting outcomes,” Griffin added.
Noting the National Youth Summit’s emphasis on the responsibility of engaging in the voting process at an early age,” Griffin said “Dr. McClendon’s work reflects the level of importance The Ethics Project places on this aspect of civic engagement.”
McClendon’s dedication to service and community developed early.
She grew up in Maywood, Illinois, a black community surrounded by all-white suburbs near Chicago. “I remember not being allowed to ride my bike, walk, go trick-or-treating, or play because blacks were not allowed and could possibly get hurt,” McClendon said.
“Maywood protected me from racism and discrimination that lay just across the alley from my home,” she said. McClendon remembers a nurturing place defined by segregation and “white flight,” “a community with black-owned and operated businesses, black schoolteachers and administrators, corner grocery stores, and black civil servants like firefighters and police officers.”
Her parents were prominent in Maywood. McClendon’s mother administered a Head Start program through the family’s church. Her father served as a police office and, later, as a juvenile detective.
“His job,” McClendon said, “was to protect children from harm as much as it was to protect the community from troubled youth.” “Officer Gunn, as most referred to him, was the guy who would jump out of the car, chase down a youth, put the person in the back of the squad car, and try to scare the heck out of them before taking them home and speaking to the parent rather than taking them to jail.”
“I think my father’s attitude of helping people spurred my interest in community,” McClendon said. “He insisted that we be nice to everyone because we were all we had.”
McClendon also acknowledges the influence of extended family: “My father’s uncles and aunts would gather weekly to eat a meal together. I grew up with many cousins. I was never afraid to walk home in the dark. All of these things gave me the sense that community is family.”
These early influences continue to motivate McClendon.
She sits on the boards of several organizations and chairs the board of the Mitchell Resource Center for Social Services, a St. Louis nonprofit that offers a food pantry and other supports for people in need.
As director of Voter Access and Engagement at the Center for Social Development, McClendon researches barriers encountered by voters of color and ways to remove those obstacles. In her spare time, she volunteers with the St. Louis Area Voter Protection Coalition. As co-director of the center’s Financial Capability and Asset Building initiative, she helps social workers develop the skills required to address clients’ financial vulnerabilities.
McClendon accepted the award in a ceremony held at the Smith Robertson Museum in Jackson, Mississippi, on October 28. It was presented by Ambassador Andrew J. Young, the award’s namesake, who served in Congress and as ambassador to the United Nations.
Young also served as an aide to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He received the presidential Medal of Freedom in 1978.
Past recipients of the Andrew Young Award include Dr. Bernard Lafeyette Jr., a freedom rider and civil rights activist honored for his work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. Wintley Phipps, education activist and founder of the U.S. Dream Academy, and Dr. Terrence J. Roberts, member of the Little Rock Nine and recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal.