The University hosted a series of events across campus for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day symposium Monday to honor the life and social activism of Martin Luther King Jr. Monday. In its 30th year, the 2016 symposium was titled “#WhoWillBeNext,” and focused on addressing modern day racism, generating proactive social attitudes and encouraging racial inclusion.
The symposium featured a variety of events outside of the annual keynote memorial speech in Hill Auditorium, including the annual Youth Day, campus-wide watch parties, the Circle of Unity, West Quad’s Connector Forum and the Law School’s symposium event titled “#YourLifeMatters.” While the events were unique in what they offered their audiences, each posed questions of modern incarnations of racism and shared sentiments of social justice, collective responsibility and community awareness.
Beginning Monday’s events was the 18th Annual Children and Youth Day, hosted by the University of Michigan School of Education as a part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.
In an interview, Molly Green, a graduate student in the School of Public Health and an event organizer, said the event aims to educate about the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
“This is a day of service and to come together as a community,” Green said. “It’s a chance to think more about civil rights and equality.”
Throughout the day, local youth from schools and churches in the Washtenaw County area participated in small group activities and workshops, such as musical chairs to teach inclusion and fairness, civil rights poetry readings, open discussions about equality and justice and a viewing of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
The event included remarks from Elizabeth James, program assistant for the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, as well as performances from the Detroit School of Arts’ Ladies Achievers Ensemble, Detroit’s Reverend Jones, acapella group 58 Greene and more.
Teacher volunteers Goldie Gibson and EJ Womack helped lead the Washtenaw County elementary school kids through each activity. In an interview, Gibson said she wanted the children to think about why King is still celebrated today.
“I ask them to tell me about the person Dr. King was,” Gibson said. “Why is he so famous? One first-grader said ‘he went to jail a lot for breaking the law but he was doing it for the right reason.’ I was impressed. My mission is with the students, helping them understand why they are here.”
When asked what he had learned, 10-year-old Amari Stevens from Bishop Elementary said he learned that he can do anything.
“I learned that anything is possible, and we are not afraid,” he said.
While Youth Day was underway, Nontombi Naomi Tutu delivered the annual keynote memorial speech in Hill Auditorium, which, for the first time, was broadcasted live to several watch parties across campus.
Several watch parties, hosted by campus groups such as the National Council for Negro Women (NCNW) and University Housing, offered a live broadcast for students and community members who were unable to attend the event in person at Hill Auditorium or wished to experience the lecture in a smaller setting.
Engineering junior Sindhu Sreedhar said the watch parties presented a unique opportunity for student discussion in a more comfortable setting. Sreedhar’s sorority, Delta Theta Psi, hosted a watch party at the Michigan Union. She said the symposium was especially meaningful to her as a member of a multicultural sorority.
“Issues of racism affect us too, and it kind of hits closer to home,” Sreedhar said.
Sreedhar added that she hopes students are able to make connections between Tutu’s speech and life at the University.
“Racism is very alive,” Sreedhar said. “But you don’t often see it, especially if you’re not the one being affected.”
While Delta Theta Psi hosted their watch party at the Union, the University’s section of the National Council of Negro Women hosted their own viewing at the Michigan League.
LSA senior Lania Robinson, a member of the University’s NCNW section, said the council helped organize the watch party because they were approached by the University and the event fits with the council’s mission.
“Based on our identities as African American women, MLK day is like something that’s really important for us to celebrate,” Robinson said.
Robinson added that she hopes that those who attended the watch party learned about the historical significance of racism and how it continues to affect the African American community on campus and across the nation.
“I hope that they kind of learn who has suffered in the past, and what that means for us as a community,” she said.
Across campus at the School of Public Policy, the Students of Color in Public Policy hosted their own watch party.
Public Policy graduate student Jacqueline Barocio said she decided to attend SCPP’s watch party because it offered a way to step out of the everyday routine and to examine how racism operates in modern society.
“You kind of forget that you exist in a larger social and political context,” Barocio said. “And re-examining my life opportunities and choices are a deep reflection of history and future social justice.”
Barocio said regardless of how society memorializes King, his work continues to this day.
“Such work still continues and is very apparent, and is still a primary goal for future generations, including myself,” she said.
Following the memorial lecture, several groups held events stretching into the afternoon. A seminar-based forum led by Honors Program residential staff in West Quad’s Connector sought to offer a space where students could reflect on Tutu’s remarks.
The discussion focused on inquiry-based prompts, asking participants to think about areas in which they felt social justice was important to them. Responses ranged from workplace experiences of racial discrimination to student stories of their peers’ micro-aggressions.
Discussion facilitator and LSA junior Lauren Tassone, an Honors Program residential advisor, said she and her peers wanted to facilitate a discussion that addressed issues of social justice and what an individual’s role is in social change.
“Today we really wanted to draw on what the speaker brought up, and we want to make sure we are a part of that conversation,” Tassone said.
Tassone said they wanted students to think about how they could become more active in social change, and how to address social issues for people of certain identities.
“How can we be allies to those who are victims of social injustice?” she asked.
LSA sophomore Cooper Agar, who attended the discussion, said he came because he was interested in how he should articulate ideas of social change.
Agar said though he had his own ideas on racial justice, he wasn’t sure how to express what he meant to say and thought the forum would provide a space where he could share his ideas.
“I thought that it would be a good way to continue that internal dialogue,” Agar said. “But also start an external dialogue.”
Agar added that he he hoped open dialogues like the West Quad forum would broaden student understanding of racial injustice and discrimination.
“I think what comes out of these discussions is an awareness,” he said. “And I think that awareness is what’s most important.”
After West Quad’s Connector Forum, over 100 supporters gathered in the Diag for the 10th annual Michigan Community Scholars Program’s Circle of Unity in commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.
Largely facilitated by students, the event featured song and dance performances from members of the University and Ann Arbor community. The Michigan Gospel Chorale sang a rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” Local artists Joe Reilly played the guitar and performed self-compositions, one of which was titled “Unity Circle.”
Wendy Cortes, School of Social Work graduate student, also delivered a speech on how to effectively support the civil rights movement.
“It is not OK to support the movement when it is convenient,” Cortes said. “It is supposed to be difficult.”
“We are inspired to realize that we need each other,” he said.
LSA freshman Taylour Treadwell said the event allowed for a fresh take on remembering King.
“It seemed cool to not sit down and just listen to something, but to be outside and do stuff,” she said.
One of the day’s last events was hosted by the University’s Law School in South Hall, during which Law guest lecturer Shermin Kruse spoke about modern racism and how every person can make a meaningful difference. The event was largely attended by University staff and Ann Arbor community members.
Kruse told the crowd scientific data shows that people sympathize more for individuals than groups. She pointed in particular to evidence of this phenomenon over the death of Cecil the lion, which drew international outrage last year, in comparison to the public awareness of African Americans killed every week.
During the event, Kruse presented what she called the “Cycle of Divide,” a circuit that represents how society unintentionally labels certain groups of people as outsiders.
The cycle began with a collapse of compassion, which Kruse said resembles how many Americans have grown desensitized to portrayals of Black people dying in the news media. This leads to the creation of a category of people considered “others,” and society becomes psychologically distant from the group, she said.
The final step in Kruse’s Cycle of Divide was the diffusion of responsibility, which she added is only worsened by the bystander effect; people thinking that because social injustices are far away, they must be someone else’s problem to resolve.
Kruse urged audience members to surround themselves with people who have differing opinions to create an open dialogue.
“We need to recruit those who disagree with us,” Kruse said. “To do that, to reduce the psychological distance, we’ve got to avoid blame.”
Ann Arbor resident Geena Siebler, an Ann Arbor Pioneer High School sophomore, said she enjoyed the insight the event offered.
“These type of things really spark thoughts in your mind,” Siebler said. “There’s so much to this world, and how can I help?”
Siebler added that she felt inspired by Kruse’s words to make a difference in the world around her, starting with her own community.
“We’re the future of the country,” she said. “So get into this kind of thing and realize what is going on around us and help and make a difference.”
Daily Staff Reporter Chetlai Jain and LSA freshman Will Feuer contributed to this article.