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Mobilizing the Next Generation by Honoring a Friend

Posted by Jenna Ray on Monday, Apr. 7, 2014


As a student, John Brian Becker ’97 exhibited a commitment to justice that helped ground his activism for the remainder of his life. Affectionately known as “JB,” he spent his formative years as an activist engaged with a range of progressive campus organizations and causes such as E-Quality, Diversity Peer Educators, Student DFL, KUMM, and the Women’s Resource Center. These experiences prepared him to later step into his role as a beloved community organizer and public citizen. Sadly, Becker succumbed to cancer at age 35, but during his life he demonstrated a connection to a diverse set of community groups and individuals that transformed many lives.

Active organizers and close friends during their college careers, Becker and Mark Schuller ’96 continued as such into their adult lives. After Becker’s passing, Schuller called upon alumni and others to help him create the John Brian Becker Memorial Student Activist Award. This award is intended to honor a Morris student whose progressive-thinking activism has made an impact on campus or beyond. Schuller trusts it will also celebrate Becker’s spirit of leadership.

“JB showed himself to be a leader,” says Schuller. “He was an activist with a special gift for making people feel important and for building community. He was really keen on getting other people to the table, to inspire them to feel courageous. I thought the award would be a fitting tribute to his life.”

Naomi Wente ’13, Dodge Center, is the first student to receive the award, and according to Schuller, she may just be the ideal recipient. With an already-impressive history of raising public awareness and promoting social change, Wente has a passion for local foods and global justice that responds to international trends. While she has every right to be proud of her achievements, she remains humbled by the honor.

“John Brian Becker clearly had a positive impact on Morris, and I am thrilled to be recognized as a recipient of an award that pays tribute to his legacy,” says Wente. “This award reinforces the notion that continuing the legacy of Morris student activists is important and that alumni and the administration value this type of student effort and involvement.”

Wente has already used the award to help finance her work. She admits that while “debt is a serious barrier for students who are interested in doing activist work,” she will be able to alleviate some of hers with funds from the award. Because of this security, Wente is free to accept appointments that are “rewarding in ways beyond financial gain,” which is important to individuals who want to take on the world. She is grateful for the generosity of alumni donors who
contribute to the fund and believes their philanthropy will inspire graduates to continue their efforts to “organize for positive change.”

Having spent the 17 years since he left Morris teaching and organizing, Schuller understands firsthand the financial constraints faced by budding activists. Like Wente, he acknowledges that the award will help ease this burden he also hopes it will encourage alumni to take part in a culture of engagement. Since many graduates from Schuller’s era went on to work with non-profit organizations and local governments, he views them as part of a “larger Morris community” concerned about justice, a community that takes pride in its alma mater. He upholds that, because of this connection to people and place, alumni have a responsibility to support the campus
and community beyond commencement.

“There’s something unique about the activism we share. It’s important
for alumni to stay in touch with students, with each other, and with the University. This is what we’re called to do, and an award like this can get alumni together to keep what we started going and help each other out.”

Invoking the famous words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, Schuller
asserts that as a small group, Morris alumni can—and will—change the world for the better. Establishing the John Brian Becker Memorial Student Activist Award is just one way in which he is working to ensure they do.


Naomi Wente ’13 is the inaugural recipient of the John Brian Becker Memorial Student Activist Award.