The University’s Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion began a series of events celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday. This year the community celebration draws its theme — “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” — from Dr. King’s fourth and final book before his 1968 assassination. The series, which will end Jan. 31, includes speaker panels, an essay contest and mutual aid campaigns.
In addition to traditional offerings, this year the Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion adds a Community Read into the lineup, offering 500 free copies of King’s book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” at various locations in the Charlottesville area. While JMRL Central, New Dominion Bookshop, and the University’s Multicultural Student Center are no longer offering copies, five locations are continuing to hand out books to community members.
Sue Friedman, executive director of the Jefferson School Foundation — a nonprofit dedicated to celebrating and preserving the Jefferson School, the first high school for Black students in Charlottesville — led the efforts to coordinate a high school essay contest and plan the Community Read effort. In a statement to The Cavalier Daily, Friedman expressed that she believes the community can still connect in commitment to the principles and values of Martin Luther King Jr., and that the events — including the Community Read — will still reach community members.
“The inaugural Community Read is an important opportunity to create a shared understanding of our challenges and our opportunities as a community,” Friedman wrote. “Classes, book clubs, civic groups, businesses, and more can join the ‘next steps’ … the Community Read can be a catalyst for what happens next … how we fulfill Martin Luther King's legacy right here in Charlottesville.”
Meghan Faulkner — chief of staff in the Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion — said in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily that the planning committee settled on the theme of “Where Do We Go From Here?” early in the fall semester, unaware of how meaningful the question would become in recent months.
“When we settled on this early in the fall semester, the question posed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his last book seemed like it would be an apt lead-in to 2021, given all the country and the Charlottesville/Albemarle community have been through in 2020,” Faulkner said. “Little did we know how much, due to recent events, the question would become only more urgent and pressing to answer.”
The celebration has served as a community-building opportunity since its inception in 2011, offering interfaith worship services and keynote speakers such as Ta Nehisi-Coates, a former journalist and author who focuses on issues of race and white supremacy, and Anita Hill, a law professor who rose to fame after accusing Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
This year, the Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion centered the celebration’s focus on the local community, building this year’s event around community organizing and aiding work by six organizations in the Charlottesville area. These organizations — the African American Teaching Fellows, City of Promise, International Neighbors, Loaves & Fishes, Legal Aid Justice Center and Piedmont Housing Alliance — will receive monetary donations from the Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in partnership with the Community MLK Celebration Planning Committee.
These six non-profit organizations were identified by an event subcommittee as worthy of acknowledgement because of their commitment to providing immediate positive impacts in the areas of food insecurity, rent relief and education.
The Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion hopes that this event provides space for both community connection and economic investment back into the organizations serving Charlottesville residents. Faulkner wrote that aside from the virtual nature of this year’s event, other aspects of the event were altered this year, intending to promote awareness about both challenges faced by Charlottesville residents and resources available to those in need.
“This year, the planning committee focused heavily on how we might be able to put the needs of the local community at the forefront of our thinking and planning for the celebration,” Faulkner said. “Beginning at our first meeting, the planning committee discussed how we might tailor this year’s celebration to have an impact locally, and decided to target several key issues.”
In addition to utilizing the funds typically spent on events to reinvest into areas in Charlottesville with heightened needs, the Division also created new subcommittees to specifically work on self-care and food insecurity in Charlottesville.
Latoria White, resident in counseling and case manager at the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center, participated in both the food insecurity subcommittee and the self-care subcommittee, representing the Women’s Center in her role.
White said that it is her intention to establish for community members an awareness of resources and opportunities — especially those that provide healing and health — that too often go unnoticed.
“Oftentimes, community members are unaware of resources offered and several of the MLK 2021 project initiatives shine light on social justice issues and challenges while also offering information, resources and ways to connect for support,” White said. “Working with the self-care subcommittee group, the intention is to offer a variety of ways for folx to take care of [themselves] mentally, emotionally, physically and financially during the pandemic and moving forward.”
White pointed to a vast array of potential positive outcomes of the new, community-centered committees.
“I hope this year’s celebration offers hope, insight, [and] ongoing work towards the many faces of healing, surviving and thriving, embracing of [diversity, equity and inclusion] opportunities on Grounds, in the community, statewide and nationally,” White said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.
Additionally, White hopes that the Self-Care and Food Insecurity Subcommittees serve as a forum to forge connections within marginalized communities and discuss opportunities for emotional healing.
“Ongoing work and effort towards community sustainability, reconnection opportunities for folx within marginalized communities, a push for greater self-care (especially during a pandemic surrounded with racial and social injustices), and a repaired and renewed relationship(s) for the nation,” White wrote.
Faulkner has similar aspirations for the impact of the event, noting that she hopes the chosen theme inspires the community to reflect more fully on Dr. King’s ponderance of “Where Do We Go From Here?” and collectively aspire to support those facing increased need.
“We hope to inspire a collective grappling with the question of ‘Where Do We Go from Here?’” Faulkner said. “We also hope that this year’s events will allow us to come together to reflect on Dr. King’s legacy, the current state of civil rights in our nation and in our locality, and what we all might do to forward his vision.”
As this year’s celebration, which hosts 18 events, is the first fully-virtual MLK Day commemoration the Division has organized, the planning and execution did not come without its challenges.
The Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the various subcommittees tasked with putting on the event balanced Zoom fatigue they recognize many are experiencing as schools and jobs have been moved online with the necessity of publicizing resources and spreading their intended message.
In addition, with a renewed focus on the Charlottesville community, the Division committed itself to figuring out how to diversify programming options and keep participants engaged and connected with the events throughout the two weeks. However, White believes that working open-mindedly as a team and combining reflection with ambition will make the entirety of this year’s offerings a success.
“The committee overcame these challenges by working together with our creative thinking skills, collaborating with folx on grounds and in the community, reflecting on past successes and revamping this year’s programming to fit the ‘new way of connecting-virtually that is,’” White said. “The committee also worked hard to utilize guiding principles for diversity, equity and inclusion to ensure all folx would be able to participate by offering a variety of connection points — discussion based sessions, fundraising efforts, community awareness initiatives, self-care activities, a Community Read, etc.”
The full calendar of events contains Zoom links to each event and a description of what attendees can expect to learn.
With eight events still to go, the lineup — which includes the 36th annual worship service, talks on race relations and racial justice, a ZOOM-Ba session and a conversation with Austin Channing Brown — has something for everyone, and organizers are hopeful the the community will use this event as a space for commemoration, reflection and inspiration.