Sac State alum’s new nonprofit focused on fostering community optimism

Ishmael Pruitt ’15 (Criminal Justice) was in high school when one of his acquaintances went to prison for attempted murder, something he still thinks about today.

“I always wondered, what could I have done to help him, (to) give him some advice or something,” he says. “We would be playing basketball at the park years before, and the next thing you know he slowly transitioned. I saw the transition, but as a teenager I didn’t think nothing of it.”

Now a Sacramento State graduate, Pruitt is determined not to let other young people fall through the cracks. He is the co-founder of Project Optimism, a new nonprofit dedicated to enacting social change by equipping community members with a positive mindset and a belief that they can contribute to society. The organization’s programs include connecting at-risk youth with college students who can serve as mentors and sponsoring events to raise money or awareness for a variety of charities or causes.

The road from concerned teen to nonprofit founder, however, was anything but direct. Pruitt joined the Vacaville Police Department’s cadet program in high school, but didn’t enjoy it. He turned his eye toward being a probation officer, which led him to Sac State’s Criminal Justice program. That exposed him to research about how education was crucial to keeping young black men out of the criminal justice system. He tried his hand at teaching, but learned that wasn’t for him either. Then he thought about how he spent his time at Sac State.

“I reflected on all of my college experience, and it involved student development in higher education,” Pruitt says, listing off jobs he held including residential advisor, tutor and peer advisor. “They all had to do with developing college students. Sac State definitely exposed me to that, and now I’m in the process of transitioning to get a master’s degree in higher education.”

For years, Pruitt had been mulling over many of the ideas that eventually became Project Optimism, but the organization didn’t get off the ground until last year when he connected with a partner, Armoni Easley, who shared his passion and dedication – as well as an attorney who agreed to help them set up the nonprofit pro bono. Project Optimism was officially incorporated as a nonprofit in January.

The organization currently has two main initiatives. The Sankofa Project – named after a Twi word that means “go back and get it” – encourages college students to serve as mentors for at-risk youths. Pruitt uses social media to facilitate connections, and there are currently about 29 mentor-mentee pairs. The other project, PI Events for a Cause (PI stands for Positive Images), raises money for various charitable efforts such as cancer research or homelessness awareness.

He and his partner also hope to launch a program that helps provide resources for the homeless, as well as expand the Sankofa Project to include connecting college faculty who are interested in mentoring college-age students. Pruitt plans to attend graduate school in Southern California, giving the organization bases of operation in two parts of the state.

Pruitt credits his parents – both of whom earned college degrees late in life – with helping him become the person he is. His mother, he says, has maintained a positive outlook on life despite hardships, while his father emphasized discipline and dedication. And he also thinks about those individuals farther back in history who blazed the trail for him and inspire him to continue paying it forward for the next generation.

“Someone down the road paved the way for me to go to Sac State and get the experience I had,” he said, “Whether it was the first black student at Sacramento State, the first African American faculty member, someone did it, so it’s our responsibility to continue to build on the legacy and help someone else get to where they want to be.”

To learn more about Project Optimism or get involved, visit



Alumna Cheryl Dell retires after nine years at the helm of The Sacramento Bee

Cheryl Dell, president and publisher of The Sacramento Bee, accepts her Distinguished Service Award from Sacramento State in 2013.

Cheryl Dell ’82 (communication studies) will retire after nine years as president and published of The Sacramento Bee, the newspaper announced last week.

A Modesto native who considers Sacramento home, Dell oversaw the Bee‘s operations during a time when newspapers across the country face declining revenues and readership, a problem exacerbated by the 2008 recession. But she told the Bee she is proud of the high level of journalism the publication has been able to maintain despite these challenges. The newspaper received a Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for editorial cartoons.

Dell’s 30-year career as a newspaper executive included positions at The Fresno Bee and The News-Tribune in Tacoma, Wash, before she returned home in 2008 to assume to top spot at her hometown paper.

“I love this area,” she told Sacramento State in 2013. “I am at home here. That makes it a little more special but, the truth is, publishing newspapers is a great honor anywhere.”

That same year, Dell received Sacramento State’s Distinguished Service Award, given annually to alumni who have achieved prominence in their chosen field and brought distinction to the University and/or their community through their accomplishments. She will be honored again by Sacramento State this May, when she receives an honorary doctorate during Spring Commencement ceremonies at Golden 1 Center.

Social work alumni provide critical care at El Dorado County community health care provider

Sacramento State alums and Marshall Medical Center social workers Amy Buchanan (seated), Janice Curtin (standing, from left), Konnie Brown, Lhia Cassaza, Ray Martinez and Kellie Curnutt.

Just a short drive up Highway 50 from Sacramento State, a dedicated group of Hornets is hard at work helping the residents of El Dorado County navigate some of life’s most difficult situations.

Six Sacramento State alumni and a faculty member, Robin Kennedy, are part of the eight-member social worker staff at Placerville’s Marshall Medical Center, one of around 40 independent, acute-care hospitals remaining in California. And in a largely rural county that has one of the state’s highest populations of elderly individuals, ensuring that patients have ready access to this type of caregiver is increasingly critical.

“We tend to see [patients] at their most vulnerable – physically, mentally, emotionally – and we get the opportunity to be present in that moment with them, find a connection and empower them to figure out where they are going and what they are doing,” says Lhia Casazza, MSW ’96 (Social Work). It can be challenging work, she added, since they must witness many of their patients pass away, but “we get the experience and the opportunity and blessing to be with them and know that we have some sort of impact on their lives, so they know they weren’t alone.”

Other alumni working at Marshall are Konnie Brown ’94, MSW ’03 (Social Work); Amy Buchanan ’04, MSW ’06 (Social Work); Kellie Curnutt ’12, MSW ’14 (Social Work); Janice Curtin, MSW ’13 (Social Work); and Ray Martinez ’14, MSW ’16 (Social Work).

Casazza and Martinez reflect both the overall growth of social work at Marshall and a national trend. When Casazza started at the hospital in 2005, her department didn’t visit the hospital’s emergency room or OB/GYN section. Today, however, she and her colleagues are available to patients throughout the hospital, and Martinez was hired last year as the Marshall Cancer Resource Center’s first full-time social worker. Curtin is an expert in the growing field of palliative care, which focuses on improving the quality of life for patients, and their families, facing advanced illness.

Martinez, who says he always has had a tendency to be the one to bring up difficult topics of conversation, was working as a paralegal in a law office that helped struggling individuals, many of them homeless, obtain social services. That’s when he developed an interest in social work.

“I wanted to understand what’s going on in their minds, and social work gave me a reference point for learning more about what they were dealing with in terms of homelessness, or having appointments to go to, or the lack of support they had to deal with,” he says.

Casazza and Martinez said the classes they took at Sacramento State provided a solid foundation of basic skills, which they were able to put into practice when they had the opportunity to participate in internships while still students. And the University’s location in California’s capital city provided an additional benefit for Martinez.

“[The National Association of Social Workers] has social work lobby days in April, and I went to that one year,” he says. “I learned what it takes to lobby for a bill, to go in front of a legislative aid and talk about a bill what was important to social work.”

The advice they have for current Hornets looking to become social workers? Don’t forget to take care of yourself, especially as you work with patients who are struggling; be sure to network; and advocate for your interests when it comes to internship opportunities.

“As far as the studying for those going through it, hang in there. It’s a lot to go through,” Casazza says. “And be proud when you get there. It’s an accomplishment.

Sacramento State’s Division of Social Work was founded in 1964 and offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs as well as continuing education programs to the professional social work community. Learn more at the division’s website.