By Leah Jones, Features Editor
Across the University of Missouri–St. Louis’s campus students, faculty, staff, parents, children, and others celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in ways that were as various as the people whom King sought to include during the Civil Rights’ era.
UMSL Students of Service (SOS) held their ninth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service (MLK DOS), which connected students with 212 volunteer opportunities with 12 local organizations. One of those students, Kaitlyn Sladek, sophomore, elementary education with an emphasis in special education, shares a birthday with MLK. She participated in the Pathways to Independence site, which is described on Triton Sync as “enrich[ing] the lives of adults with complex learning disabilities and associated disorders through the development of the social interaction and self-advocacy skills necessary to achieve each individual’s goals for independence, community engagement and meaningful relationships.”
Not all of the sites involved direct interaction with people at those sites, since the UMSL SOS focused on providing service to organizations as they needed it. However, since Sladek is studying pedagogy and special education, her skills proved useful at Pathways to Independence, where volunteers and residents made tomato soup, salad, and grilled cheese before enjoying the meal together. “Since I am a special education major, I want to get as much experience as I can with those with disabilities,” Sladek said.
Sladek is also an Alpha Xi Delta member, and one of their philanthropic endeavors is Autism Speaks. “So this opportunity was important to me and close to my heart,” Sladek continued.
Sladek said that she enjoyed spending part of her birthday volunteering. “Though I didn’t spend the entire day volunteering, it was a great day. I knew it was going to be worth it because it was such an awesome experience. … It is also a great way for our school community and the surrounding area to come together to help those in our community. It’s an amazing program,” she said.
While some students provided services through UMSL SOS, members of UMSL’s international honors society in education, Kappa Delta Pi, provided service in their own way. Belinda Quimby, graduate, secondary education, and president of Kappa Delta Pi, helped to run a children’s program on the lower level of the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. “This is one of our biggest service projects that Kappa Delta Pi does annually. [We’ve] been doing it for several years now. It’s a children’s program that takes place during the same time that other celebrations and performances are going on in the auditorium for grown-ups. They can leave their kids here while they enjoy the other celebrations or they can stay and hang out and join the kids in the celebration,” Quimby said.
Quimby said that 12 to 14 teachers and professionals officially volunteered, but many of them brought friends to help, and some parents remained behind with their children, for a total of about 20 adult volunteers who provided educational programs for 80 to 100 elementary-aged children.
Children could complete MLK-related arts and crafts projects such as making and decorating buttons, bags and bookmarks which featured phrases and symbols about peace, working together and diversity. Children also completed global and culturally themed puzzles and literacy activities. Quimby said that the literacy activities featured MLK vocabulary and asked children to write their own “dreams.” Children could also read a biography of MLK and then answer “w-questions” after they had finished the book. For children with lower reading levels, Kappa Delta Pi also provided story tables where volunteers read to children.
Some of the parents who left their children in the care of the Kappa Delta Pi members and students that did not serve with the SOS attended the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Celebration, also in the Touhill Performing Arts Center. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) sponsored the event, which ran from 10 a.m. to noon. Speakers, musicians and dancers all addressed the 2017 theme for the event as listed on the ODI’s homepage: “Dr. King’s dream and legacy are for EVERYONE: How will we end fear, hatred, violence and silence?”
Chancellor Thomas George and James Widner, director of jazz studies at UMSL, opened the ceremony, with George playing the piano and Widner on bass. Deborah Burris, chief diversity officer at UMSL, gave opening remarks before KMOV reporter Justin Andrews took over as the Master of Ceremonies.
Reverend Susan Andrews, the interim pastor at the Second Presbyterian Church since 2015 and recipient of Lectionary Homiletics’ preacher of the year award in 2000, served as the first speaker of the morning. The Spreading the Love Singers, directed by Marty Casey, performed “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” next. Chancellor George gave a brief welcome speech, before the Spreading the Love Singers performed another musical presentation, followed by a dance presentation excerpt of “Freedom” by the Modern American Dance Company (MADCO), choreographed by Cecil Slaughter. The entire show will be performed at the Touhill later this year from March 31 to April 1 at 8 p.m.
Charles Piller, past president of the Epsilon Lambda Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, presented scholarship awards to Katherine Bluemel and William Holt next.
Brian Owens and the Deacons of Soul performed “Change is Gonna Come” before guest speaker Farai Chideya took the stage.
Chideya is an award-winning author, journalist, professor, lecturer and Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and has written about politics, work, culture, travel, technology and race. In addressing the theme of the morning, Chideya spoke about a global “season” that she has observed in her conversations with white supremacists and in her travels to 49 states and 28 countries. “Right now we are going through a season,” she said. “In Europe, parties like the National Front and other far-right parties are bringing up vestiges of fascism, segregation, [and] hints of the Nazi era.”
She went on to say that though the United States has been in existence for hundreds of years, due to laws and practices barring African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latino Americans from voting, the country has only become a multi-racial democracy within the last 50 years. “I don’t believe as a nation we ever fully committed to equality. … Equality is scary and equality is new,” she said.
Chideya continued to speak about how this global season has led to some frightening realities. “People are painting swastikas on slides on playgrounds [in Brooklyn]. We are not living in times for the faint of heart,” she said.
She went on to cite the alt-right as a form of white supremacy which organizes and attacks people in online spaces. While some have dedicated themselves to Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight for equality, Chideya reminded the audience that this fight is not won. “We can recruit to the side of equality with our actions, our words, our song, our dance … but people are also recruiting for the other side,” she said. “And there is something magnificent and terrifying going on right now in our country where people are trying to make it cool to be racist, xenophobic, Neo-Nazi. This is not just theoretical. This is happening.”
Chideya cited the rising death rates of middle-aged white Americans and said that they have had a rough past few decades as well. “Whiteness has been the greatest entitlement program,” she said, and as people have come to realize that privilege can be lost and that success in society is based on competition, people become afraid.
“So the question … that I am often left with is; how can we create an America where people can do their best and not worry about involuntary subordination and realize that you may not always be the fastest runner, but that’s okay and that we reward you for who you are? We have to reframe success in America?” she asked.
She suggested that the problem could be approached through both formal measures, in laws and policy, and through more informal measures, such as friendship. Her closing remarks resounded throughout the audience as she invoked the theme of the evening with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” She ended the speech with a call for love.
Brain Owens and the Deacons of Soul accelerated the momentum of Chideya’s speech with another music presentation, followed by closing remarks from Deborah Burris and a performance of “We Shall Overcome,” in which the audience was encouraged to participate.
From volunteering their time and skills on their birthdays, to watching and educating children on the values associated with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to listening to speakers talk about the implications of those values in our modern world, and to singing and dancing, UMSL students, faculty, staff, and the surrounding community celebrated and honored Martin Luther King Jr. in diverse and multifaceted ways.