On Monday, Karine Jean-Pierre, lecturer in international and public affairs at Columbia University, visited the University of Michigan as part of the University’s 2018 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium to deliver her speech “We Need Change NOW… Here’s HOW.” Jean-Pierre has professional experience ranging from participating in local politics to helping organize the presidential campaigns of Martin O’Malley and former President Barack Obama. She discussed lessons she learned from her extensive experience and advised listeners on how to make change of their own.

Prior to the event, Jean-Pierre said she was honored to speak at the University on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and with the current political situation it is more important than ever to stand up for what is right.

“We’re at a crossroads in the world and in this country right now, with what is happening at 1600 Pennsylvania, with the president that’s sitting at the oval office behind the Resolute desk, which is incredibly dangerous and scary with the divisive policy that he puts forth practically every day and the hateful things that he says,” Jean-Pierre said. “What a great opportunity to be able to talk on MLK day and hopefully lift up MLK’s voice and highlight what he said decades ago, and say, ‘hey, the fight is not over, and it’s probably more important than it’s been in a long time to continue to fight right now.’”

Jean-Pierre started her talk by denouncing President Trump’s recent comments about Haiti, El Salvador and African countries. The issue was especially personal to Jean-Pierre, whose parents emigrated from Haiti.

“My name is Karine Jean-Pierre, and I am a Haitian-American,” Jean-Pierre said. “I had a fairly good idea of what I wanted to talk with you about today. In fact, I had my remarks all planned out. But then on Thursday, the President of the United States called the land of my ancestors, the land of my heritage, the land of my parents, an s-hole. And ironically 24 hours after he made those racist remarks, he signed a proclamation to honor Dr. King.” 

Jean-Pierre commented on how the worst part of these remarks was that how she didn’t find them surprising, citing other comments Trump has made such as calling neo-Nazis “fine people,” and calling Mexicans “rapists.”

“If you’re like me and you’re tired of the racism, tired of the immigrant bashing, tired of the homophobia, tired of the robbery of the working class to benefit the rich, tired of no progress on climate change, police brutality or any other of the many issues, I hope you will agree with me that the time for change is now,” she said.

In Michigan, Trump barely won against Hillary Clinton by a margin of 10,704 votes, which is 0.23 percent of Michigan’s eligible voters.

“Imagine where we would be today if we had all given 0.23 percent more effort,” Jean-Pierre said. “Instead of watching a president shatter our social contract with a hammer forged from bigotry, ignorance and hate, we’d be celebrating the one-year anniversary of shattering that highest, hardest glass ceiling. It seems like every minute we receive a different reminder that the fierce urgency of now has never been quite so urgent or quite so fierce.”

Jean-Pierre outlined ways that the people in attendance could make a positive difference through four steps: energizing, organizing, mobilizing and democratizing. Citing how the Women’s March, which was the largest single day of protest in American history, started from a Facebook event, Jean-Pierre noted it has never been easier to mobilize and organize people.  She encouraged everyone to take part in whatever way they could, whether that be by marching, encouraging friends to participate, fundraising or running for office. Jean-Pierre emphasized every contribution is important and necessary in order to create a country in which Americans are proud to live.

Public Health student Alaya Martin asked what Jean-Pierre thought of millennials who decided to abstain from voting in the 2016 election as a protest of the United States’ political institution. Jean-Pierre responded with a Martin Luther King Jr. quote that she used frequently throughout the talk: “There is a time where silence is betrayal.”

“I hear that, and I understand that thinking, but I guess my argument against that would be: look what’s happening,” Jean-Pierre said. “We can’t stay silent. In this moment in time, silence is a dangerous concept to have. What we’ve seen in 360 days, we can’t allow that to continue. We cannot stay silent. I encourage millennials to take control. Don’t be passive; you are the largest bloc, and we’re looking to you guys. My daughter is counting on you guys. Please do not be passive. You guys are the future. This is your world.”

After the talk, Martin said she agreed with Jean-Pierre’s statement and enjoyed her talk. She particularly appreciated Jean-Pierre’s insight because it was coming from someone who was around her own age.

“I do think that she’s right,” Martin said. “We can’t stay silent. We can’t be passive. We’ll have to find ways to make our voices heard through the vote, and also do other things to make sure that we’re doing our best to achieve social justice and equity through all spheres of our life.”

Engineering junior Hannah Floyd said she appreciated Jean-Pierre’s direct approach to the issues discussed.

“I really appreciated her explicit call to action,” Floyd said. “She really told us how to do things, how to be hands-on and involved in your community.”

LSA sophomore Sam Maves had attended two other symposium events before Jean-Pierre’s, and he discussed the importance of coming to events like this.

“Any time there is an opportunity presented to hear someone’s story about where they’ve been, what they’ve done and what they are doing, I think that’s really important to go do that regardless of what we’re celebrating,” Maves said. “But especially in light of MLK’s legacy, I think this kind of discourse is really important.”

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