Inspiring Action: Emerson’s MLK Week 2017 by Lucie Pereira

Each year, Emerson comes together to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. not only with a holiday, but a week dedicated to events that explore themes of race and activism. This year’s theme centered on a question that MLK asked in the title of one of his books, “Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community.”

After a community discussion over lunch and a book launch of Proyecto Carrito 2010-2016 (an anthology of writing by many of Emerson’s Latin American immigrant community members), the week’s focus on movement-building and political action culminated with a screening of the documentary Show Me Democracy and an all-day workshop, “Building A Movement.”

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Discussion on Walker 10

On January 25, students and faculty gathered to view Show Me Democracy, a feature-length documentary that follows seven young activists in St. Louis, Missouri, as they advocate for policy change through an internship program empowering youth involvement in the democratic process. The film takes place during the turbulent aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson on August 9, 2014. Focusing on issues of education, these seven young people contact legislators and travel to Jefferson City to push for affordable and equitable access to education for all, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or immigration status. One strength of the documentary are the examples of varying avenues of activism – from social media campaigns, to ironclad research, to giving testimony in the capital. One of the film’s subjects gives up her internship to fully dedicate her time to local grassroots movements, protesting on the streets of Ferguson. Poignant moments include footage from Ferguson following the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who killed Michael Brown, and interviews with white patrons of a restaurant where protestors stage a die-in, who profess that they supported the protestors’ mission until the demonstration interrupted their brunch.

Following the screening, EBONI president Chala Tshitundu ’18 moderated a panel of local activists: Judy Pryor Ramirez, executive director of the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research; DiDi Delgado, head of operations at the Society of Urban Poetry and an organizer for Black Lives Matter Cambridge; Jonathan Mendoza, an activist, poet, and educator who founded Board Bucks for Boston and the Berklee Activist Network; and Laura Londoño ’18, president of Emerson UNITE (Understanding National Immigration Through Education). The panelists discussed how they got involved in activism and the importance of rallying against discriminatory policies.

“I used to be ashamed of the word ‘immigrant,'” Londoño said. Now, she feels it’s important to tell her story and be an advocate for others.

Added Delgado, “It’s up to the youth of today to be involved in these issues…I think there’s a lane for everyone.”

Each panelist stressed that there are many ways to be politically engaged, and that hope, passion, and awareness are crucial to making a difference.

“Politics is almost always a game of lesser evils—that doesn’t mean it’s not important,” said Mendoza.

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From left to right: Lauren Londoño, Jonathan Mendoza, DiDi Delgado, Judy Pryor Ramirez, Chala Tshitundu

As a natural follow-up to the discussion, Emerson’s MLK Week ended with the Building a Movement workshop, split up into two sessions. The first session was “Know Your Rights,” a conversation hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) about free speech, civil disobedience, protests, and how to impact current legislation. The second, “Know Your Powers,” was hosted by the Student Immigration Movement (SIM), and focused on leadership and outreach skills as well as movement-building strategy. Participants broke into groups to plan and illustrate their own demonstration or campaign on a selected issue. In the span of fifteen minutes, each group had created a detailed plan of how they might raise awareness and promote action against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

In contrast to the usual emphasis on service and reflection, this year’s MLK Week centered around taking action, pushing for change, and speaking up on issues that matter. Building a Movement ended with participants writing down their commitment to making a difference, encouraging the spirit of activism to continue throughout the year, building community and working against chaos.

Photos by Suzanne Hinton

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