MLK Symposium keynote speakers address ‘renaissance for equity’

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Three distinguished speakers addressed the lasting impact of racism on health care, media and education during the University of Michigan’s 2023 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.

“I feel that we’re in this time of revolution … and I would also say we’re in this time of a renaissance for equity,” said Aletha Maybank, who, along with Edward Buckles and Jalen Rose, delivered the symposium’s memorial keynote Jan. 16.

In addition to a livestream, the annual symposium’s opening event took place in person at Hill Auditorium for the first time in three years.

Now in its 37th year, the MLK Symposium is one of the nation’s largest celebrations of King’s life and legacy sponsored by higher education. Themed “The (R)evolution of MLK: from Segregation to Elevation,” this year’s symposium runs through early February and includes 26 individual events.

From left, Aletha Maybank, Edward Buckles and Jalen Rose were the memorial keynote lecturers for the 2023 Rev. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium. They participated in a panel discussion moderated by Earl Lewis (right). (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

Provost Laurie McCauley said she is excited about the progress the university has made toward strengthening affordability and accessibility to college education through efforts like the Wolverine Pathways program.

“Perhaps the most important point I can make today is that Dr. King’s legacy lives in all of us. It is our responsibility to choose as individuals, as well as together as a university, what we will do with that legacy,” McCauley said.

Maybank is a physician and chief health equity officer and vice president for the American Medical Association. She has taught medical and public health studies on topics related to health inequities, and she co-founded the “We Are Doc McStuffins” movement to highlight the importance of diversity in medicine for young girls. Maybank has also appeared as a health expert on MSNBC, National Public Radio and NewsOne.

Promoting policies that desegrated hospitals, King worked extensively as a health advocate, Maybank said. Since the AMA’s founder had a key role in racist policies that originally segregated medical institutions, Maybank now works with the association to propel restorative justice work.

“The core part of the work that I do is that we as institutions can’t change people unless we start to focus on ourselves and get our own houses in order first,” Maybank said.

Maybank said she hopes she can aid in the fight to make injustice visible. She encouraged young people to connect with health justice leaders, use social media for health advocacy and build on the movement.

In 20 years, she said, we’ll reflect on what has changed in our health and our systems. “The question for now is, what kind of change do you want to usher in and to be a part of individually and collectively?” she said.

Buckles is a director and producer known for his award-winning documentary “Katrina Babies.” The documentary features stories from individuals who were children living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, and it highlights the trauma and discrimination they faced in the months and years that followed.

“I used my camera as a tool and a weapon to elevate the forgotten voices of the storm through the best way I knew how: my art,” Buckles said.

After becoming a high school teacher in 2015, Buckles said, he started to notice the correlation between student outbursts and trauma in the community. This caused him to reflect on his own experiences as a teenager living in New Orleans and the negative ways Black communities affected by Hurricane Katrina were portrayed in the media.

“If I didn’t know what racism looked like before, I definitely knew then,” Buckles said. “The reality is that hurricanes and other disasters only exacerbate the inequalities that already exist. As Dr. King once said, ‘We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together.’”

Watch the full 2023 MLK Memorial Keynote Lecture.

Rose is a prominent philanthropist, author and former U-M and NBA basketball star. He is currently an analyst on ABC and ESPN with two popular podcasts. In 2011, Rose founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy. The free, public charter high school in northwest Detroit strives to empower students and give them the skills to succeed in college and beyond.

“Despite major strides towards education equity, our country still faces an opportunity gap. Education should not be defined by social economic background abilities. Or, as I say, the quality of your education should not be defined by your ZIP code,” Rose said.

Rose said inner-city schools predominantly composed of students of color receive less funding than suburban schools. He said he hopes his school can help bridge the education gap to equip inner-city students with the tools they need to be competitive and thrive in the workforce.

“So, what does success look like? It’s putting young people in a position to change the family dynamics that they were raised in and put themselves in a position of being a difference maker in their communities,” he said.

The symposium began with the debut performance of “Black Pilgrims,” a hip-hop and electronic opera depicting a sung and spoken fictional conversation between King and Malcolm X.

The opera, created by Stephen Rush, professor of dance/music technology, was performed by Scott Piper, the Norma L. Heyde Faculty Development Professor of Voice and associate professor of music, and Daniel Washington, professor of music.

Other speakers at the event included:

  • Tabbye Chavous, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer.
  • Sharonda Chiangong, an undergraduate in international studies.
  • Jaime Fuentes, a doctoral candidate studying microbiology and immunology.
  • Solomon Milner, an undergraduate studying English and communications and co-chair of the Native American Student Association.

Following the keynote addresses, Earl Lewis, Thomas C. Holt Distinguished University Professor of History, Afroamerican and African Studies and Public Policy, moderated a panel with the three keynote speakers during which he asked their thoughts on the biggest difference between the world in King’s time and the world now.

“I think during his time, segregation and racism were in your face. Now it’s in the atmosphere,” Rose said.

The lecture’s closing event featured a performance by the Detroit School of Arts’ Voices of Distinction. Conducted by U-M alumnus Julian Goods, the group performed the Vincent Bohanan song, “We Win.”

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