On Feb. 3, 2022, at 5 p.m., Wheaton held its seventh annual Martin Luther King Celebration event. The event consisted of a showcase of children’s art, the presenting of both the Faculty and Student Martin Luther King Junior awards, a keynote speaker, and lastly, a space to ask questions.
To begin, Michaele Whelan, Wheaton’s new president, gave an introduction encouraging us to “decolonize our minds.”
Dean Raquel Ramos then introduced the art showcase which consisted of children’s art work, each piece accompanied by a famous MLK quote.
For the awards portion of the event, President Whelan introduced the Faculty Martin Luther King Award, which went to Gabriela Torres, a Professor of Anthropology and the Associate Provost for Academic Administration and Faculty Affairs. Some of Torres’ accomplishments that led to her receiving this award include her curation of an introductory course about creating a just world and her publication of an anti-racism website. Torres said that the award was “completely unexpected” and she was “really grateful for this recognition.”
Intercultural Board (ICB) chair Faith Freeman ‘22 introduced the MLK Junior Student Award. The recipient was Justin Martinez, who is the chair of the Sexuality, Gender, and Inclusion Board (SGIB), a Dialogue facilitator, First Generation Event Coordinator, student teacher, and so much more. Upon receiving this award, Martinez remarked that as a student teacher, he approaches all of his students as if they are MLK Jr., proving that he truly does implement MLK’s legacy in his everyday life.
The keynote speaker for this event was Dr. Jamila Lyiscott. Dr. Lyiscott is a nationally renowned speaker, spoken word artist, social justice education scholar and author of Black Appetite. She is well-known for her TED Talk she gave when she was 19 years old: 3 Ways to Speak English, which was released in 2014, with over 5 million views. In this TED Talk, Dr. Lyiscott says “But do not judge me by my language and assume / that I’m too ignorant to teach / ‘cause I speak three tongues / One for each: / Home, school and friends / I’m a trilingual orator.”
In her speech for this event, Dr. Lyiscott spoke about “a critical hope” that is inspired by Martin Luther King Junior. A “critical hope” is something that is tangible and waymaking. “Critical hope” is something that looks at the tyranny of white comfort and aims to dismantle the systems that maintain it.
Dr. Lyiscott explained how we have created classrooms and institutions where white comfort is valued more than black experiences. She rightfully called out those that say “we are anti-racist” but continue to participate in practices that value white supremacy. She explained that people of color abandon their voices in order to fit in with these broken systems. She then quotes MLK Jr. by saying “If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it. Peace is not simply the absence of conflict, but the existence of justice for all people.” Dr. Lyiscott explains that BIPOC have to mute their truths to prioritize white comfort and doing so can lead to the policing of black bodies.
During the question and answer part of the event, somebody asked what Wheaton can do as an institution to enact critical hope and make students of color feel heard. Dr. Lyiscott explained that the institutions need to be worthy of their students. Oftentimes, students of color get a feeling of imposter syndrome, where one feels unworthy of the institution they are a member of. This is not acceptable, we cannot let Wheaton, or any institution that we are a part of, off the hook for making its members feel that way.
Dr. Lyiscott was also asked what gave her critical hope. She explained that she is provided with the hope and inspiration to pursue all the incredible things that she does when she sees “way making from elders.” This reminds her that she has the responsibility to make way for other people. She reminds us that critical hope is about “relishing in the beautiful things that make us under threat… in an unapologetic way.”
Another question that was addressed in the question and answer portion of the event was: How can Wheaton interrogate whiteness? Dr. Lyiscott explained how the answer to that question is different for white students and students of color. For students of color, she said to interrogate whiteness by being fully invested in “our own beautiful identities and futures” and to participate in racial healing and restoration. For white students, she said to come to terms with our role in upholding white supremacy and to actually teach and learn important histories.
Shaya Gregory Poku, soon to be Wheaton’s Associate Vice President for Institutional Equity and Belonging, wrapped up the event by thanking Dr. Lyiscott for her wisdom and truth.
I believe that Dr. Lyiscott is brilliant, accomplished and inspiring. Wheaton was very lucky to have her as a keynote speaker.