In the 1990s, when gang violence in Los Angeles County was at its peak, Cheryl McKnight was a member of the Gang Prevention and Intervention Unit in Long Beach. She helped initiate a truce between the East Side Longos and Insane Crips gangs, resulting in a long-standing peace that remains to this day. She soon became director of the city’s Future Generations Youth Center, where she enabled marginalized youth to take some ownership of the program.
In 2007, she joined California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) and used what she learned about empowering to expand experiential learning and service opportunities for students as coordinator for the Center for Service Learning, Internships and Civic and Community Engagement (SLICE).
“Coming to Dominguez Hills, I brought the lessons learned from working with the youth of Long Beach. Many of our students come from Watts and Compton, communities still bearing the scars of years of violence,” McKnight recalled. “I took notice of the quiet student in the back of the room trying not to be seen. Often these are the students who have experienced generations of trauma and need to find the place where they are safe and belong. I let them know it was here.”
Today, community engagement is at the heart of SLICE’s mission, and much of it is carried out by student interns and volunteers. Over the years, McKnight has been honored for the positive outcomes the center has had on the communities CSUDH serves, most recently with the California State University’s 2020 Faculty Innovation and Leadership Award (FILA).
“Being recognized by the Chancellor’s Office is very humbling, and such an honor, but this award is really recognition of all the challenging, yet very rewarding work the SLICE staff does in earnest throughout the year,” McKnight said. “I’m so proud of them all.”
The CSU FILA recognizes CSU faculty who have demonstrated leadership at the campus level and accomplishments associated with student success, or the implementation of innovative practices off campus that improve youth outcomes and eliminate equity gaps. Each FILA awardee will receive a $5,000 cash award and $10,000 allocated to their academic departments to support awardee activities.
Through SLICE, McKnight, a CSUDH alumna (’01, B.A, anthropology; ’06, M.A., English), has established a number of state and federal government programs on the campus, such as JumpStart and JusticeCorps. Additionally she spearheaded the return of the campus’ annual Native American Pow Wow, which has led to the creation of the American Indian Institute at CSUDH.
McKnight established the JusticeCorps program at CSUDH in 2006 with Americorp grant funding she acquired. The program provides CSUDH students with the opportunity to assist self-represented litigants in navigating the legal system under the supervision of paralegals and attorneys.
Jumpstart for Young Children is a national early education organization providing language development, literacy, and socio-emotional curriculum to preschools in underserved communities. Also funded with Americorp grants, CSUDH’s Jumpstart program has been serving preschools in Compton since 2010 with cohorts of 40 CSUDH students, who work directly with local Jumpstart staff members on training, session planning, and service opportunities.
“Our incredible Jumpstart students use the skills they learned here to prepare Compton preschoolers for kindergarten,” McKnight said. “They give over 300 hours of their time a year in addition to their studies, often while caring for parents or their own children and holding down jobs.”
SLICE student volunteers who have participated in Jumpstart and JusticeCorps have higher retention and graduation rates on average – 84 percent and 71 percent, respectively.
Comparably, Compton preschoolers who participate in the program average a 64 percent improvement in kindergarten readiness. These programs also provide pathways for employment for CSUDH students working in preschools, K-12, the courts, and police departments.
Miami Gatpandan, a CSUDH alumna and SLICE’s coordinator, served in Compton preschools as a Jumpstart member for two years. She credits McKnight for her innovative approach to student success and closing equity gaps for students of color.
Like Gatpandan, each SLICE staff member is a CSUDH alumnus who was mentored by McKnight as a student volunteer.
“It began with Cheryl taking the time to know and understand our personal stories, exhibiting confidence in our abilities, and challenging us in our academic pursuits and civic responsibilities,” wrote Gatpandan in the nomination letter for McKnight’s FILA award. “Through her continued mentorship and bringing in resources, I am one of the countless students Cheryl helped to finish graduate school and use our education to continue serving our communities.”
In 2010, after McKnight examined the impacts on Native American students of being underrepresented at the university, SLICE organized the first CSUDH Pow Wow, and tied it to the service-learning Anthropology course North American Indians. A pow wow is a Native American ceremony involving feasting, singing, and dancing.
Today, SLICE students continue to organize the pow wow and work alongside the Native American community during the event. SLICE also runs the American Indian Institute at CSUDH, and in 2011 their work with native groups resulted in a request by the CSU Office of the Chancellor to establish the Indigenous People of the Americas minor at the university.
“It is really my hard-working staff who earned this award,” McKnight said. “Coming from our underserved communities, they understand developing partnerships to overcome the long-standing health, education, and economic disparities. They also understand that education is a bridge to help level the playing field for the community’s youth. They really get ‘transforming lives,’ and their work is reflected in our students’ passion and commitment to serve.”