MLK Week Adapts and Thrives

By Rachael Powles '22, Arleigh Rodgers '21, Leah Aulisio-Sharpe ’22, and Erika Liberati '22, February 7, 2021
The college’s annual weeklong celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. adapts due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As she was working to put together programming for the college’s yearly weeklong celebration of Martin Luther King Jr., Omega Hollies realized an opportunity was in front of her.

“Obviously, we had to make our programming virtual,” said Hollies, assistant director for Ithaca College’s Center for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Social Change (IDEAS). “But knowing that change was coming allowed us to think of other ways in which we could adjust the event to make it more impactful.

The most significant change centered on how the content was delivered. Typically, MLK Week programming — which this year ran from Jan. 25 to 29 — had revolved around a single quote by King. But Hollies wanted to take it in a different direction this year.

“We wanted to encourage people to think about King critically, look at the trajectory of his life, and think about how his beliefs evolved and changed, and connect it to their own life.”

Omega Hollies, assistant director for the Center for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Social Change (IDEAS)

“It became abundantly clear that it would be really hard to find a quote that encapsulates how people are feeling,” she said. “Instead, we wanted to encourage people to think about King critically, look at the trajectory of his life, and think about how his beliefs evolved and changed, and connect it to their own life.”

MLK Scholars Take Center Stage

A second programming change focused on the presentation usually given by the college’s MLK Scholars. Typically, in the fall semester, the scholars deliver a presentation on their Civil Rights Tour of significant places in the Civil Rights movement in Alabama and Georgia.

This year, unable to travel, the scholars studied the history of social justice work and collaborated with their peers on ways to educate the public about injustice while pushing for change locally and nationally. They then hosted a three-part series of events throughout the week.

One event, centered around the theme “Systems and Structures,” focused on the impact of a paper the scholars sent to the Biden-Harris Administration highlighting their insights as students who fight for social change. It also showcased their creation of a social justice learning and support resource.

Further Reading

Meet the Class of 2024 MLK Scholars and check out their online resources.

At another event, Beja Birch ’24 showcased her project on the issues of colorism and beauty standards for Black women in the media and discussed how representation can change the narrative and the impact that leaves on her community.

RahK Lash, director for the Center for IDEAS and director of the Martin Luther King Scholar Program, said he felt humbled as he watched his students’ dedication, despite the challenges they faced during a global pandemic.

“While there were struggles and extraneous variables each individual scholar had factoring into their daily life, it was evident that they were hungry for a college experience, eager to learn, and willing to sit with the discomforts of developing through the transition into college,” he said. “They gave me hope as I struggled to navigate life at home in isolation.”

“Although racial injustice is hard to fathom on a big scale, you can always break it down into sections of how injustice is performed in our day-to-day lives to oppressed populations. By taking accountability in our own lives, it encourages others to do the same.”

Julia Batista ’22

Attendees talked about how the events resonated with them.

I learned that, although racial injustice is hard to fathom on a big scale, you can always break it down into sections of how injustice is performed in our day-to-day lives to oppressed populations,” said Julia Batista ’22. “By taking accountability in our own lives, it encourages others to do the same.”

Speakers Bring Valuable Viewpoints to Light

In addition to the MLK Scholar programming, additional events during the week reflected challenges students have dealt with during the past year.

The first event of the week was a panel discussion, moderated by MLK Scholar Maya McCullough ’23, featuring local activists Christa Núñez, Alexas Esposito and Josh Dolan. The trio discussed what drove their activism and how students can get involved.

“People need to see what's going on,” Esposito said. “We need to amplify and create larger platforms for people's stories and their experiences to be heard.”

Later that night, at an event organized by the Student Activities Board and moderated by Brynn Smith ’22, Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa, a nonbinary spoken word poet, performed a selection of pieces that explored their family relationships and gender identity.

For Smith, hearing Katwiwa speak was a significant moment.

“FreeQuency represented a lot of marginalized voices,” he said. “It was awesome to see campus promoting someone with such a unique viewpoint and stories.”

The next day, IC Voices, a group overseeing an archival project aimed at capturing the voice and spirit of Ithaca College student activists, hosted Rita Bunatal ’16, who spoke about the impact of student activism.

Rita Bunatal headshot

Rita Bunatal ’16 spoke about the role student activism can play on campus. (Photo courtesy of Rita Bunatal)

“It doesn't have to be big,” said Bunatal, who played an integral role in the 2015 POC at IC movement. “You don't have to stage a walkout, just fight for something that is an issue amongst the student body.”

Bunatal, who launched her own fashion line after graduating, said she hopes current students use their college experience to expand their frame of reference.

“College is a place for you to learn about the experiences of different people and be exposed to different worldviews,” she said.

Later in the week, Ithaca College’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, in collaboration with IC Hillel, hosted Rabbi Saul J. Berman for an event titled “The Duty to Vote, The Duty to Protest: A Biblical Perspective.”

Berman, who teaches Jewish Law at Yeshiva University and at Columbia University Law School, reflected on his time as an activist in the 1960s, when he worked alongside Civil Rights leaders in the segregated American South, including his participation in now-infamous protests in Selma, Alabama in 1965.

Isaac Schneider ’23, vice president of Religious Life for IC Hillel, said that Rabbi Berman’s visit could not have come at a more appropriate time.

“We wanted people to draw connections between Rabbi Berman’s experiences and what occurred during the most recent presidential election, so having him speak was very timely,” he said.

“A virtual space invites more intimacy, because we can all see each other and interact ... The feedback we received is that because the events were hosted on a smaller scale, experiences were meaningful and powerful.”

Omega Hollies

Lash says he hopes the campus community will continue to engage with these issues far beyond just one week. With events recorded and set to be posted to the Celebration website, he hopes the resources will become a toolkit for student groups, departments, student employees, and their supervisors to continue a dialogue about the college's commitment to values like community, antiracism (pro-Blackness), identity, injustice & justice, and more.

This work continues ongoing programming, such as antiracist reading and actions groups and student leadership institute workshops that have taken place throughout the last year.

Overall, although the week’s events were a departure from the traditional format, Hollies says the change was a positive one.

“The virtual nature of the event allowed us to redefine what a successful event was,” she said. “We realized we didn’t need 200 people in a room listening to a keynote speaker. A virtual space invites more intimacy, because we can all see each other and interact, and having that was great. The feedback we received is that because the events were hosted on a smaller scale, experiences were meaningful and powerful.”