Martin Luther King (MLK), Jr. Day is celebrated on the third Monday of January- usually when Wheaton College is on winter break. Last year, former Black Student Association (BSA) President Ezeanne Fonge ’16 along with other members spoke with President Dennis Hanno about organizing Wheaton’s first ever MLK Legacy Celebrations. This event was realized on February 25 and included an award ceremony followed by a keynote speech by Clint Smith.
Over break, members of the community were encouraged to submit nominations for a student and a faculty/ staff member who were deserving of Wheaton’s MLK Legacy award. The President’s council reviewed over 30 nominations and deemed Nataja Flood ’16 the student award winner. Raquel Ramos, associate dean/director of the Marshall Center was the faculty/staff winner.
A student creative arts contest was also held with awards for the top three submissions. The BSA executive board members along with the Council on Inclusion and Diversity (CID) deliberated on the winners. Ashely Tsegai ’19 won first place with a spoken word piece titled ‘MLK (which stands for Melanin Left Kansas).’ Destinee DuBose ’19 came in second with her spoken word verse titled ‘It Was All Just a Dream.’ Juli Mikush’s ’17 art piece ‘Better Together’ won third place.
Director of Athletics and Recreation and CID member, John Sutyak ’00 announced Ramos as the staff/faculty award winner. He said that this recipient was well known on campus for being a strong advocate for issues relating to diversity and inclusion. “[The] impact she has on Wheaton comes in every imaginable way- working one on one with students; advising other faculty and staff; and creating new programs to educate and inform our community,” said Sutyak about Ramos.
A visibly moved Ramos was given a standing ovation as she received her award. She said that she loved what she did although the work could seem endless, exhausting and overwhelming. “Working with students and seeing how far they can go in their time here and beyond is really what makes every day worthwhile,” said Ramos.
Khadeedja Muheto ’18 introduced the student award winner as passionate and someone who demonstrated courage, truth, justice, dignity and service. Through her performed poetry about racism, Flood is said to allow students to interact with these sensitive topics in a new way. “In common with MLK, this person uses words to inspire and empower many people to unite. Her presence is unforgettable and her words paint a beautiful picture,” said Muheto about Flood.
On receiving her award, Flood thanked her nominators for believing in her. She said, “There is an essentialness in leadership, but it is also important that we know we don’t need leaders to lead us. We can all do it by ourselves. That’s why I am inspired to push …everyone to make sure they are embracing their whole selves.”
Fonge then introduced Smith who is a teacher, writer, poet and doctoral candidate at Harvard University. While performing his spoken word pieces, Smith encouraged the audience to snap, clap and react to his work that covered a variety of topics such as racialized police brutality, gun violence, whitewashing of history books and immigration laws. This was followed by an armchair discussion with Gabe Amo ’10, Rhode Island’s director of public engagement and then a reception in the Chapel Basement.
Hanno said that he was pleased with the turnout of close to 200 people for Wheaton’s first MLK Legacy Celebrations but expected an even bigger and more diverse turnout in the coming years. He underlined the importance of this celebration by quoting MLK by saying, “‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’ There’s too much at stake to not care. We can’t be silent. We must care. We must act. You’re here tonight, that shows you care. “