MLK Committee to continue focus on social justice

During the past academic year, the planners of Lehigh’s MLK celebration expanded programming that was concentrated during one week in January to a series of events that spanned the entire academic year. The success of that effort, coupled with a greater institutional focus on diversity, has led to the second year of robust programming related to social justice issues, particularly focusing on the prison industrial complex as part of the larger theme of “Incarcerated Justice.”

“Because of some of the incidents that took place on campus last year, we were all more aware of these issues,” said Tyrone Russell, co-chair of the MLK Committee and director of Lehigh’s Office of Multicultural Affairs. “People may have been more likely to attend something, or at the very least, be more aware. And nationally, it seems that there was always something in the news that generated more interest. A student could watch a news story on CNN, and then go to a discussion about that same topic right here.”

Russell said he and the planning group “sort of rode that momentum to create programming,” which netted practical considerations as well.

“The expanded, year-long focus offers so many more opportunities to be involved, to create more and stronger alliances across campus, to attract higher profile speakers and to have deeper, more meaningful conversations,” he said. “And all of those benefit the entire community.”

Lloyd Steffen, associate professor of religion studies, University Chaplain and co-chair of the MLK Committee, said that a focus of this year’s work will be “reflecting on the kind of community we want to be.”

“As recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, have demonstrated, this reflection is going on in our nation as well,” he said. “The MLK committee is perhaps a small effort, but we are dedicated to holding up Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community, and we have been dedicated to initiating or supporting the many different ways education and learning can shape how we live and what we value. Our focus on the criminal justice system continues to be a learning initiative that we hope will open eyes to a major racial problem in our society many of us do not know enough about.”

Programming has already begun for this year, with support of a well-attended lecture by Jasmine Rand, hosted by Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) and co-sponsored by MLK Committee, Africana Studies, among other constituents, the attorney for the family of slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin, on “Sexualizing Race, Gendering Sex: Stand Your Ground, Trayvon Martin and White Female Sexuality in the Prosecution of Black Men.”

The MLK Committee is also involved, with other programs and organizations across campus, in the following programming:

•    A “Rap Sessions” event discussion featuring Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, that will be moderated by hip hop artist and activist Jasari X. Panelists will also include Carlito Rodriguez, award-winning writer/Producer of BET documentary 50 Shots on Police Brutality and Sean Bell; Michael Skolnik, political director for Russell Simmons/editor-in-chief of; Niaz Kazravi, NAACP National Director of Criminal Justice, and Bakari Kitwana, executive director of Rap Sessions. The event will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 16th, in Baker Hall.

•    The Nov. 5 lectures, which will focus on the theme “The Price We Pay: Crack, Cops, and the Cost of Bias,” by Dr. Phillip Goff, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of California-Los Angeles, who investigates the possibility that contextual explanations play an under-explored role in producing racial inequality; and neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart, associate professor of psychology at Columbia, who researches drugs, behavior, race and society. Hart also authored the highly acclaimed book, High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society.  Times and location will be publicized at a later date.

•    A talk by highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, the New York Times best-selling author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander will be Lehigh’s MLK speaker at a celebration slated for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 28,  in Baker Hall.

Despite great attendance at a series of events last year that was highlighted by a moderated discussion with author, educator and activist Angela Davis and hip hop artist Nas, Russell said the group struggles to broaden the audience base.

“I still have the sense that we’re missing our majority population on this campus,” Russell said.
“We’re continuing to look at ways to get the entire campus involved in the issues we’re looking at, and in nationwide and worldwide events, which are so easy to ignore when you’re not engaged or updated on them.”

Any member of the campus community who wants to be involved with the MLK Committee is welcome, both Russell and Steffen said.

“We want to encourage those who are interested in helping to shape the on-going campus dialogue about who we are, who we want to be and what we value to bring their ideas to the MLK Committee,” Steffen said. “We can help make connections and offer support—we can, I hope, help transform complaints into dialogue and dialogue into conversation and meaningful action.”

In addition to Russell and Steffen, MLK Committee members include James Peterson, associate professor of English and director of Africana Studies; Monica R. Miller, assistant professor of religion and Africana Studies and director of WGSS; Gordon Moskowitz, psychology professor and department chair; Darius Omar Williams, assistant professor of theatre and Africana Studies, Silagh White, director of arts engagement and cultural affairs; Brenda Martinez ’15, a journalism major and founder of Dream and Act LU; David Nguyen ’13; political science and Africana Studies major Ryan Rhodes ‘15 and Linda Harbrecht, director of communications.