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MLK Day of Dialogue events provoke discussion

MLK Day of Dialogue events provoke discussion

Photo by Kristen Huffman

Although Monday, Jan. 19 officially marked Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Kenyon’s annual MLK Days of Dialogue week extended before and after the holiday itself. The Days were filled with events honoring King, including movie showings, a celebratory breakfast and several panel discussions over healthcare and the contemporary relevance of King’s work.

The week was kick started with a screening of Dear White People on Friday night, followed by a student-professor panel. Sponsored by Cinearts, the Black Student Union, Sisterhood and Indigenous Nations at Kenyon, the movie focused on the experiences of four African-American students at a fictional, predominantly white Ivy League college.

According to Eric Sutton ’18, the audience turnout for the movie was impressive. “The seats [of the Gund Community Foundation Theater] were completely full — people were sitting on the floor,” he said.

Sutton was a member of the post-movie panel, which was hosted by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) and Project Open Voices, alongside Associate Professors of English Ivonne García and Sarah Heidt, Professor of Drama Jonathan Tazewell, Hector Marrero ’15 and Syeda Showkat ’15. “We talked about the movie’s parallels to Kenyon and how we should handle events like the kind that happened in the movie,” Sutton said.

Over the years, the MLK Days of Dialogue program has grown exponentially. Though the College has long recognized the holiday, faculty expanded the celebration because “other people wanted to be involved and explore these ideas more broadly,” Yutan Getzler, associate professor of chemistry and this year’s planning committee chair, said.

Getzler said the planning committee works for approximately eight months, first meeting at the end of the prior spring semester, to create the schedule and come up with a theme for the week. This year’s theme was public health, as evidenced by a symposium by titled “‘As Long as Diseases are Rampant…’: Public Health and Civil Rights in Contemporary America.” “We just want to put out programs that people will find interesting and worthwhile,” Getzler said.

The two-hour long symposium included a speech from President Sean Decatur, student choir performances and a personal keynote speech from physician Arthur James, whose presentation was punctuated by the fact that, as of 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had named Ohio as the state with the highest African-American infant mortality rate.

Unfortunately, this relevant symposium was not nearly as popular as the Dear White People screening. “I was really disappointed in the turnout from the community,” President Sean Decatur said. “I think it’s a conversation we need to have in looking at next year. The idea of compressing the calendar in order to free up time in the day … is a really good idea. But it also means that I think we have an obligation as a community to actually participate in the stuff going on during the day.”

After James’s address, Cynthia Colen, Ohio State University (OSU) assistant professor of sociology, and Jason Reece, director of research at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at OSU — who have both done research on the racially-based inequalities in health — joined James for a panel. Although initially well-attended, the number of students at the event trickled down to 25 by the end of the panel.

Other events included Associate Dean of Students Chris Kennerly’s 12th annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Breakfast, which Assistant Director of the ODEI Monique Jernigan said “is a kick-off event that generally garners the most excitement.”

There was also an open mic session on Wednesday night at the Horn Gallery hosted by Busola Olukoya ’15, Erika Cuevas ’16 and the Discrimination Advisors, where students were encouraged to respond to prompts from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. Beforehand, Olukoya cited the open mic as one of the events she was most excited about because it was fully open to students. She said, “I’d like people to attend and discuss … and just be wholly present.”

There was also a dinner with Decatur and his wife, Oberlin College Associate Professor of History Renee Romano, to discuss Unnatural Causes, a 2008 documentary series that examines health inequalities and disparities. “I wish the event was bigger than 20 people, but at the same time, I realize that having a small group allows for an easier discussion,” Getzler said.

However, student turnouts at the events have grown along with the events themselves, Getzler said, as the attendance numbers from last year’s symposium setting an all-time record for the program. “We considered moving the symposium into a smaller space, because sometimes we want a more intimate feel, but after last year’s attendance, we decided to keep it at Rosse [Hall],” Getzler said.

Kenyon students are not only receptive but also inspired by the MLK Day of Dialogue events —“There have been several important initiatives that arise out of conversations inspired by the symposium,” Getzler said.

Jernigan agreed the MLK Days of Dialogue events allow for student reflection, and hopes for the program’s continued success. “This day is important because we take a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come and how important both individual and unified action is to making lasting change,” she said.


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