By Amanda Coelho
Springfield College hosted its ninth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture on March 1 over Zoom, a night of acknowledging racial issues in education and the broader world.
June 14, 1964 was an extraordinary day in the history of the College. On that day, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the commencement address on Alden Street during the peak of his fame.
The connections between racial issues and education are prevalent today. The main focus was Critical Race Theory: The close examination of race as a social construct, and the push from scholars and activists to defy common stereotypes and beliefs about race.
Andrea M. Kane, a Professor of Practice in Educational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of Education, was a panelist for the event and gave her perspective on racial issues in educational settings and beyond.
“Discouraged efforts and motivations and dreams of marginalized groups are terrorism for these groups of people,” Kane explained. “One of the biggest issues we seem to face – especially in the academic world – is minorities being discouraged from speaking their voice and fighting for equality.”
Another issue that was addressed during the seminar was the talk by white people of needing to protect their rights. “It’s so disturbing,” Kane said. “There are many people who don’t need protection and there are many people who do need protection. Protection from the truth should not be the issue [regarding education in K-12 schools about sensitive racial topics in history]. Who was concerned when we talked about slavery with black students in the classroom? Who worried about the Black students who were feeling uncomfortable or shamed in school?
“We need to talk about the truth with students in the classroom,” Kane continued. “By having these conversations about the truth, whatever it may be, we learn the language to talk about our history.”
Florida’s recent passage of a “Don’t Say Gay” bill that prohibits classroom discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation shows that this issue is getting worse, said Kane, who stressed the importance of speaking the truth in all situations, educational or not.
“More than ever before we are growing more diverse in many places,” Kane said. “There are less white people.”
Jonathan Friedman, the lecture’s other panelist, is the Director of Free Expression and Education at PEN America. Friedman uses powerful speech and learning to drive efforts toward a more inclusive and informative society. He spoke mainly about the power of public education and the conservative groups of people who attempt to overpower and reverse advancements in diversity, inclusion and equity.
“It cannot be illegal to teach history to students that makes them uncomfortable. History is very uncomfortable; it’s meant to make you uncomfortable. It’s not to make us feel good, it’s to make us learn from our mistakes and prevent repetitions of historical parallels and mistakes we have made,” Friedman said. “For example, The 1619 Project is a banned book in Texas, but none of the books written by Adolf Hitler or white supremacy are banned across the country.”
At Springfield College, where 21% of undergraduate students identify as a student of color, 3% of undergraduate students are international students, and 23 countries are represented in the student population, there is growing diversity on campus.
Clubs like GSA (Gender & Sexuality Alliance), Black Student Union, International Student Organization, Latinx Student Organization, and many more represent the efforts to make Springfield College a diverse, inclusive and equal place.
Springfield College also awards a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion award to members of the community who stand out as people who advocate for positive change and put efforts toward improving diversity and inclusion here at Springfield. The award is given to one student, a staff member, and a general member of the community.
At the end of the seminar, this year’s winners were announced: Paris Lizana, David McMahon, and Ronn Johnson.
Lizana is a current student and President of the Black Student Union. She also serves as the Vice President of the Women of Power club and participated in the SEAT at the Table events, where she presented and informed students on four separate occasions on different social justice topics.
McMahon is a current staff member and serves as the Director of Spiritual Life. He prioritizes his presence on campus by attending as many events as he can and is an advisor of diversity, working with students to explore their identity.
Johnson, who died unexpectedly on Jan. 15, left his mark on the Springfield College community. He worked to fund a citywide violence prevention task force, funded efforts toward mobility and access for children with disabilities in Western Massachusetts, and in 1998, founded the Brianna Fund for children with physical disabilities — named after his daughter.
Kane gave her final remarks, restating MLK’s role as an influencer on societal and racial issues – and his impact at Springfield College.
“Chaos or community are our options. King’s message was a message of hope,” Kane said. “A hope for a future of racial equality. Are we going to fight our way out of this? Or talk about it. We don’t have to agree with it — but we have to respect it. And that is how we learn to live in community, not chaos.”
Photo Courtesy Springfield College