For Veronica “Ronnie” Taylor, being involved in community activism through artistic expression has always been a way for her to help others while also remaining true to her authentic self – a journey that was a long time coming.
Growing up in Sanger, California, the social work graduate student recalls a childhood that wasn’t easy. Poverty surrounded her and the effects of intergenerational trauma, such as mental illness and substance abuse, followed her and her family throughout her school years.
During this time, Taylor also battled internal struggles of gender identity and gender roles, and later, her sexuality. At 16, she came out as lesbian – a decision that was met with resistance by those closest to her.
“During that time I lost a lot of family and friends,” Taylor said. “Our relationships either ended or were just vastly different after that point. I just remember being looked at and treated differently, and it was a lot to process as a kid. To this day, I still kind of struggle with having the confidence to unapologetically be myself.”
For Taylor, musical expression was her release from the pressures of society. Drawn to Fresno’s creative scene, namely the Tower District, Taylor later moved to Fresno and enrolled at Fresno State in 2008, first as a music major, and later to psychology, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in 2014. After graduating, Taylor explored the world of cultural art activism with nonprofit Dulce Upfront. It was then that her passion and purpose came to fruition.
“My experiences working with Dulce Upfront really shaped me and helped me come into myself as a community advocate,” Taylor said. “A lot of our events were to uplift and amplify local female and non-binary artists and entrepreneurs, which allowed me the space to be myself. So despite all the challenges from my past, it was such a great period of growth and transformation, and I found the motivation to invest in myself.”
This led to her discovering a new professional path within social work, and in fall 2019, she enrolled in the Master of Social Work program at Fresno State. Since then, she has immersed herself even further into a community that celebrates culture, art and belonging.
It is during some of those community events that Taylor came across Zoyer Zyndel, an influential leader and community activist in his own right. Each time Zyndel spoke, Taylor could sense firsthand the passion and light that radiated from within him. Serving others and holding space for others in the LGBTQ+ and transgender communities was his purpose. Although their interaction was brief, their connection would be forever bound by common experiences.
Much like Taylor, Zyndel also struggled early on with conforming to gender roles and identity. In high school, he came out as a lesbian, but according to his family, that identity never felt right to him. Later, while while a student at Fresno City College, Zyndel began to identify as a transgender man.
Similarly to Taylor, Zyndel also returned to Fresno State later in life to pursue the same degree – a master’s in social work, with the intent to serve the multifaceted community he lived among. He graduated in 2017, and left an immeasurable impact during his time on campus, where he served as president of the University’s United Student Pride Club and was a member of the Rainbow Alumnx and Allies Club. Zyndel passed away on December 26, 2020, leaving many to mourn the loss of a dear friend, colleague and championed ally for the transgender and LGBTQ+ community in Fresno.
The Zoyer Zyndel Memorial Scholarship in Social Work Education was formed in the weeks following Zyndel’s passing. Over 100 donors from across the community – including many in the the LGBTQ+ community – came together to endow the award, making it the first scholarship at Fresno State named for a transgender person. Taylor, who shared many parallels with Zyndel, was selected as the very first recipient of his memorial scholarship.
“This scholarship was the perfect way to honor and remember Zoyer, a two-time alumnx who had been an advocate and activist on behalf of social justice at Fresno State and the greater community,” said Peter Robertson, director of alumni connections at Fresno State, and one of the individuals who spearheaded the creation of the scholarship. “His loved ones felt that the Master of Social Work program impacted Zoyer’s life in so many ways, and want this scholarship to continue his legacy by positively uplifting social work graduate students for years to come.”
Taylor intends to pay her scholarship forward by not only honoring Zyndel’s legacy of activism and inclusion, but by providing a safe space for others who share her life experiences. When she graduates in the spring, Taylor hopes to combine her love of community and creativity in order to give back to others facing similar situations.
For Taylor, the scholarship has been a light in a time of so much uncertainty. Because of the pandemic, her music business (she is self-employed as a sound engineer, music and event producer, mobile DJ and performer) took a hit. Funds from the scholarship allowed her to focus fully on her studies without having to worry about pursuing other income. It also gave her time to focus on her social work internship at the Fresno County Department of Behavioral Health, where she provides mental health services to the adult population. Similarly, Zyndel also served the county as a mental health clinician prior to his passing.
Meanwhile, Taylor’s time on campus as president of the African American Student Social Work Association (AASSWA), and as a member of the Fresno Chapter of the California Association of Black Social Workers, has given her a unique platform to continue her quest of uplifting others and sharing space with her fellow students, who are also of African or mixed heritage like her.
“Ronnie has done a fantastic job of creating an inclusive environment in club meetings and she has enhanced the reputation of social work on our campus,” said Dr. Travis Cronin, assistant professor in the Department of Social Work Education. “I am convinced that her contributions will last much longer than her time on campus.”
“Ronnie has an innate awareness of the need for social work students to better serve the African American and related African populations,” said Dr. Cheryl Whittle, lecturer in the Department of Social Work Education. “As a direct result of her leadership, the AASSWA has been able to have a significant impact at Fresno State and in the community. I have been privileged to have mentored Ronnie and watched her develop as a social work professional who I expect will do amazing work in the community.”
Taylor remains humbled by her scholarship, but more so – inspired to one day pay it forward.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for everything that Fresno State has done for me through grants, scholarships and financial aid. It makes me see the importance of giving back in different ways, whether you’re physically giving back through your advocacy and activism, or giving back financially. This definitely motivates me to one day either donate to an existing scholarship or create a new scholarship, the Ronnie Taylor scholarship or something,” Taylor said with a smile.
Since January 2021, more than $37,000 has been raised for the Zoyer Zyndel Memorial Scholarship in Social Work Education. Your donation will help build the endowment to continue to increase scholarship opportunities for Fresno State students.
Campus friends remember Zoyer Zyndel – Jan. 7, 2021