About 50 students and faculty convened Tuesday evening in the Rackham Amphitheatre for the 2nd annual King Talks, a TED-talk style lecture. The event is part of the weeklong Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium celebration, which included a keynote lecture and more than 20 other events. The King Talks event featured four graduate student speakers who shared how their work and life experiences related to the legacy of Dr. King.

Paul Artale, Rackham Academic Program Manager for Graduate Student Engagment and organizer of the event, explained the speeches responding to the MLK Symposium theme of “Unravel” were the product of months of work starting when the speakers applied in October.

During her talk, Rackham student Aunrika Tucker-Shabazz told the story of Takovia Allen, a 3-foot-9-inch, 50 pound, 6-year-old with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder who was subdued by three police officers and charged with battery and assault for kicking her kindergarten aide in the ankle. Tucker-Shabazz revealed Takovia’s story is not unique, as Black girls are routinely more harshly punished for the same behavior compared to white girls, and at higher rates.

To explore the implications of this disciplinary disparity, Tucker-Shabazz compared classroom punishment to charges on a bank account, drawing the metaphor that positive behavior increases a student’s balance.

“This is a hidden fee, but this is also a steep fee that young Black girls are paying for the same misconduct,” Tucker-Shabazz said. “One part of the story is that Black girls and other children are not starting at the same balance, but they’re also having deficits and withdrawals from their account more frequently than other populations and at a faster rate, and no one is talking about it.”

According to Tucker-Shabazz, however, zero-tolerance policies are often prejudiced with “hidden fees” for Black girls, creating a ripple effect on their academic possibilities, future careers and overall life outcomes.

“(The zero-tolerance policy) holds them back in the short-term, in K-12,” Tucker-Shabazz said. “But they are also more likely to not graduate high school or college on time … to be unemployed or underemployed more than any other population, and more likely to report mental illness.”

Tucker-Shabazz elaborated on stereotypical depictions of Black women as animalistic and angry, using examples from children books to show these characterizations begin during girlhood. Such perceptions, Tucker-Shabazz claimed, lead adults to view and treat young Black girls like adults, resulting in harmful consequences.

“Starting at age 5… (Black girls) are more likely than white girls to be perceived as older, as having more carnal knowledge of the body, as being more aggressive in their behavior,” Tucker-Shabazz said. “They’re more sexualized than any other child in the classroom … We see Black girls as non-members of children, and we see them as adults. So we actually punish them, as a result, as adults.”

Next, Rackham student Shannon Moran discussed the link between mentorship and representation by sharing her experience as a mentor for other LGBTQ women in STEM. She then looked at research on the importance of mentorship and visibility for other underrepresented populations such as Blacks and Hispanics in STEM. In particular, Moran noted that she had no such data on mentorship in the LGBTQ community.  

“(Studies on LGBTQ mentorship) do not exist,” Moran said. “But I’m not about to wait around for a study that shows that LGBTQ mentorship works in STEM to start doing what I know works. I’m not an expert … but I do know how to share my experience.”

In the next King Talk, Social Work student Kavitha Lobo reflected on her global social work project in Geel, Belgium, where mental health patients, called “boarders,” are placed with host families for intensive, humanizing psychiatric care. In comparison, according to Lobo, seeking mental health care in the U.S. can often feel much lonelier and carries much more stigma. Lobo explored how American mental health treatment could learn from Geel’s example, stressing such care can be compatible with American culture.

“While we may not all meet the criteria for a mental health diagnosis, I bet that everyone in this auditorium has at some point experienced a situation in which they felt excluded due something that made them different,” Lobo said. “A culture that is accepting of difference does not need to be at odds with American values.”

Steven Smith, Kinesiology and Public Policy graduate student, closed the event, relating his experience at a boxing national championship tournament to King’s stance of non-violence against angry and often violent opposition. He discussed the King monument in Washington, D.C., highlighting the monument’s unfinished state, just as King’s legacy and work must be carried on.

“You have to stay focused and rise above,” Smith said. “You have to unravel from the chaos, whether you’re getting punched in the head a bunch of times, or something more serious is happening. You have to rise above that moment, and make a decision to focus on your work … What is the work that you want to do? What is your unfinished monument?”

Nursing senior Woojung Yi said she was pleasantly surprised to see the range of topics being discussed. In particular, she resonated with Lobo’s discussion of mental health in Geel.

“I personally would like to work in mental health one day, so the model from the (Lobo’s talk) was interesting,” Yi said. “It inspired me to think of how it is feasible in that country and how America could one day become better at mental health.”

Artale emphasized the diversity of topics was intentional, but all speakers share a common vision of a better future.

“We looked at ‘unravel’ as the idea of … how can we chip away at the system, how can we pull on threads we’re not noticing to create a change, to create a difference?” Artale said. “Dr. King, at his heart, was about envisioning a more just world. And all nine King Talks speakers we’ve had over two years, they’re all talking about that, in their own different way.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Artale as a Rackham student.

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