Every year around the time of Martin Luther King Jr. Day there are conferences, workshops, lectures, and readings addressing issues ranging from multi-culturalism to hip-hop music
This year, organizations such as the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force, the Ethnic Student Center, the Social Issues Resource Center, and New Student Services are taking part in a conference entitled “Teaching/Learning from a position of compassion and an appreciation for diversity and learning.” Essentially the conference is focusing on connecting with local educators in schools and targeting the general community.
The focus for the conference sprang from an event that occurred earlier in the fall when some students at Bellingham High School put up racist graffiti at Sehome High School.
Students reacted to the incident in a pro-active fashion with summit meetings, film presentations, and readings. Students also led a march from Bellingham to the courthouse
Joe Wooding of the Center for Educational Pluralism and a volunteer for the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force says that he hopes the conference will offer students another opportunity to engage in dialogue about this incident and issues surrounding it.
Wooding addresses the idea that this conference sets out to accomplish what King was trying to accomplish with his work.
“King called for a revolution of values. As teachers who are questioning society and questioning practices they are working with students to envision what kind of world is possible and developing these skills,” says Wooding.
Political Science Professor Vernon Johnson will also be giving a lecture drawing upon the idea of the role of youth in social justice movements and making schools a safe climate for all students.
Johnson reflects on the reaction by the building administration that occurred at Sehome High School after the incident.
“It was interesting how quiet the building administration and the district level administration were over the whole thing and it was interesting that the students really kept up the energy and mobilization of the incident,” says Johnson.
A read-in is also scheduled on the day of the holiday at Village Books where students will read to children from local schools.
“The work of creating a truly multi-cultured society, the work of understanding the linkage between race and economic inequality and social justice more broadly doesn’t happen by osmosis,” says Johnson. “All this stuff should be integrated into the curriculum…But, schools don’t want to have political problems or be accused of having political problems, so they teach objectively. It’s too bad that we don’t have ways or mechanisms in engaging with this all the time. The problems are not going to go away with superficial treatment.”
Johnson adds that the conference can help people spread outward into the community in ways that can’t be described. Many of his former students who have been involved with the conference have gone on to work for social justice organizations throughout the U.S.
“We do believe we are trying to build a movement and it’s not as glamorous as it was in the 60s but it’s the same concept and very much in keeping with King’s legacy,” said Johnson “When he started out he was fighting for social justice and near the end of his life he was fighting for economic justice. The phrase that he never quite put this way that I always like to say was that he was fighting for economic justice in a multi-racial society. So recognition that race and class are tied together yet, have independent lives of their own, so we have to understand race. Again if you don’t have the tools, then you may not be able to communicate properly so that things can get done.”
Both Professor Johnson and Joe Wooding emphasize that dialogue should occur throughout the year and not just on the day we celebrate King’s legacy and the symbolism he stands for.
“It’s my favorite holiday because it feels authentic. It’s one holiday that is dedicated to a person where his whole movement was successful. We can honor what he was about and value where he was at near the end of his career and life,” says Wooding. -
“I thought that by the time I was at my age now, that the world would be egalitarian, socially just, racially just,” said Johnson. “But, it’s not. In some cases it’s almost gone backward because the forces of reaction have reared themselves up and asserted themselves over the last 20, 25 years. But, we keep building because it’s the right thing to do. As one of my colleagues put it, ‘it feels good to do good’. It gives meaning to life.”