World Trust

Make the Most of Honoring MLK on Campus

Posted by Lisa Abbott on November 11, 2014

martin-luther-king-jrMartin Luther King, Jr. Day is a time not only to engage students but also to forward an institution's goals of equity and diversity. In the words of World Trust founder, Shakti Butler, the annual event creates an opportunity for us to explore "how we need to work on ourselves individually and collectively to meet the standards and the goals that we admire."

As a campus committee sits down to plan January's MLK events, therefore, it can do more than identify themes as teaching moments for students. It is also helpful to revisit diversity & inclusion goals and ask "what do we ourselves need to learn from the experience?"

  • Do we treat all of our workers with respect, offering fair and equitable compensation?
  • Are we striving to build connections with the greater community, both local and global?
  • Do we participate in shared governance, allowing diverse voices to participate in the decision-making process?
  • Are our recruitment, enrollment, and hiring processes working to meet our diversity goals?

Figuring out where the gap lies between where you are today and where you need to be lets you align MLK events in a way that has more impact. The message of diversity is no longer an abstract principle but comes from a place of self-examination, which fosters an authentic desire to work toward shared goals.

Here are some typical approaches to ground the discussion your institution needs to have this MLK Day.

1. Engage in Campus-Wide Dialogue

Cultural diversity training seminars and "teach-ins" can spur meaningful dialogue about race and ethics especially when they focus on a widely publicized and relatable example of systemic inequity, like the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

How do students know when they are seeing inequity in practice? Is there really such a thing as reverse discrimination? When and how do we challenge prevailing attitudes about race?

These are all questions that student may have. A campus-wide dialogue can productively engage them by focusing on a single event during MLK events.

2. Participate in the MLK Day of Service

An institution can register its own service project or find a local community project that needs volunteers to partner with. It's important to make sure not only that the project is in alignment with the institution's diversity goals but also that it has real community value. This combination best reflects the prinicples of community building set forth by Dr. King.

  • The action can be a single day project -- for instance, installing new playground equipment at a school.
  • Conversely, the planning committee can identify a local need and use the MLK Day of Service to launch an ongoing project, such as providing free daycare for women who want to take continuing education classes.

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities provides some great tips for how to organize and implement an MLK Day of Service project.

3. Create a Week of Focused MLK Events

Holding a series of events throughout the week of the MLK Day holiday has become the traditional way of keeping issues of justice and equity in students' minds. When selecting the speakers and events,  stay focused on keeping these events aligned with institutional goals and also to keep in mind your students' core demographic.

Do students come from privileged backgrounds and have little or no experience with discrimination? If so, the focus may be galvanizing white students as allies in interrupting sytems of racial inequity, and being part of the healing and change that Dr. King espoused.

Do students come from mostly working class backgrounds? A focus might then be on getting them to understand Dr. King's view of populism as a means of building solidarity across class and racial lines.

Choose a variety of mediums to send the message:

  • Showing a film like Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity can expose the student body to the concept of structural inequity and create productive dialogue across racial divides.
  • Popular films like To Kill a Mockingbird and 12 Years a Slave, documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement -- such as 4 Little Girls and Freedom Riders -- and television interviews with King also make excellent teaching tools.
  • Musical performances and art exhibits are a great way to draw in both students and the community at large.

Finally, encourage teachers to devise their own means of creating relevant connections with their discipline and Dr. King's message. A biology professor, for instance, may discuss medical ethics in relation to the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa. A literature professor might have students read aloud passages from one of Dr. King's speeches to show how his rhetorical patterns are an effective tool of political and social engagement.  A communications professor might ask student to compare how the media characterized protesters during the Civil Rights Era with those participating in demonstations in Ferguson.

World Trust film clips, available on our YouTube channel, WorldTrust TV, are an excellent resource for educators looking to find ways to discuss equity and diversity in the classroom during MLK events.

World Trust produces film and curricula resources to support diversity efforts in education, health care, nonprofit, philanthropic, faith-based and governmental institutions. Our facilitators engage thousands of people each year in cultural diversity workshops that are rooted in love and justice.

New Call-to-action

Topics: Higher Ed, Diversity Workshops, Talk about Race, Resources for Facilitators & Educators