Rosenstein wins U of I faculty social justice award

Jay Rosenstein with Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Danita M. B. Young
Professor Jay Rosenstein with Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Dr. Danita M. B. Young at the Diversity and Social Justice Education Awards ceremony on April 16, 2019. (Photo by Madeline Wilson.)


“There’s a little bit of synchronicity going on,” said Professor Jay Rosenstein, at the University of Illinois Diversity and Social Justice Education awards ceremony on April 16. The event was held at the University Y—the very location where Rosenstein saw a talk 30 years ago that changed his life.

Rosenstein, a professor of media and cinema studies, was named the winner of this year’s Social Justice Award for Outstanding Faculty/Staff. As he accepted his award, he recalled the story of hearing Spokane Indian Charlene Teters and two other Native Americans speak about their experiences at the U of I and the impact of the school’s American Indian mascot, Chief Illiniwek.  

That fateful day eventually led to the creation of Rosenstein’s best-known documentary film, In Whose Honor? American Indian Mascots in Sports, which has become the seminal work on the subject. He is now a nationally recognized leader in the movement to rid sports teams at all levels of their American Indian mascots and nicknames. He has also won a Peabody Award and multiple Emmy Awards for his documentary films.

Jay Rosenstein at DiversityEd awards ceremony
Rosenstein accepts his award at the ceremony. (Photo by Madeline Wilson.)

“Listening to [Charlene Teters] speak gave me the idea that the rest of the country needed to hear what she had to say, particularly about American Indian mascots, and the mascot here at the University of Illinois: Chief Illiniwek,” Rosenstein said. 

Since 1989, he has been inspired to do what he could to make the campus and community a more welcoming place for Native Americans. And that’s why he was nominated for this award—for his dedication “to make the U of I a diverse, inclusive, and respectful campus toward all those—and especially American Indians—who live and work in the community.”

Jodi Byrd, associate professor of English and gender and women’s studies, and a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, nominated Rosenstein “for all his work—sometimes at great personal and professional cost—to help educate the community and campus about why the Chief—a racist caricature of a stereotypical notion of American Indians [and the school’s former official sports mascot]—is harmful to the University, to the community, and to the American Indian students, staff, and faculty who live here.”

Byrd, who is also a scholar in American Indian and Indigenous studies, said that In Whose Honor? “is essential as a pedagogical tool across the nation in American Indian studies courses,” adding that “Jay deserves recognition for how his work on this campus has been a vital part of educating the community about the lingering consequences of racist mascotry.” 

In addition to being broadcast nationally on PBS, In Whose Honor? is currently used as an educational resource in more than 750 colleges and universities in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and has been included and cited in four textbooks on the subjects of race, Native Americans in film, and documentary filmmaking.

Rosenstein noted another meaningful moment of synchronicity. Last fall, the campus hosted its first ceremony to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day and invited Illinois alumna Charlene Teters to return to campus to be the keynote speaker.

Charlene Teters and Jay Rosenstein 2018
Charlene Teters with Professor Jay Rosenstein at the U of I ceremony for Indigenous Peoples' Day on October 8, 2018. 


Within Rosenstein’s body of work is a consistent theme of courageous women who stand up for social justice. His other documentaries include The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today, for which he earned a Peabody Award, among many others. That film features Champaign mother Vashti McCollum who—in conflict with prevailing 1940s era culture—won a landmark Supreme Court case declaring that religious classes could not be taught in public schools. 

“The biggest goal was for the audience to get an idea of the personal cost and personal toll, being in a case like this, and with your name on a case like this,” Rosenstein said. “It tells the human side of ultimately what happens in a case. There are real human consequences and a human cost.”

The Amasong Chorus: Singing Out (2002) documents the Champaign-Urbana lesbian and feminist chorus that rose to national acclaim under the direction of musician and activist Kristina Boerger. 

Rosenstein has been a faculty member in the College of Media for 19 years, in both the Departments of Journalism, and Media and Cinema Studies. He is a member of the permanent faculty of the U of I’s Center for Advanced Study and been named a University Scholar, two of the University’s highest designations for faculty. 

—Holly Rushakoff