By Amanda Coelho
Springfield College hosted its ninth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture on March 1 on Zoom, a night of recognition of racial issues in education and the world at large.
June 14, 1964 was an extraordinary day in the history of the College. That day, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the commencement address on Alden Street at the height of his fame.
Links between racial issues and education are widespread today. The main focus was critical race theory: the in-depth examination of race as a social construct, and the pressure from academics and activists to challenge common stereotypes and beliefs about race.
Andrea M. Kane, a professor of educational leadership practice at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, was a panelist for the event and offered her perspective on racial issues in educational settings and beyond.
“The discouraged efforts, motivations and dreams of marginalized groups are terrorism for these groups of people,” Kane explained. “One of the biggest problems we seem to face – especially in academia – is that minorities are discouraged from speaking out and fighting for equality.”
Another issue that was addressed during the seminar was the discourse of white people on the need to protect their rights. “It’s so disturbing,” Kane said. “There are a lot of people who don’t need protection and there are a lot of people who need it. Protection from the truth shouldn’t be the problem [regarding education in K-12 schools about sensitive racial topics in history]. Who was concerned when we talked about slavery with black students in the classroom? Who cared about black students who felt uncomfortable or ashamed at school?
“We need to talk about the truth with the students in class,” Kane continued. “By having these conversations about the truth, whatever it is, we learn the language to tell our story.”
Florida’s recent passage of a “Don’t Say Gay” bill that bans classroom discussions about gender identity and sexual orientation shows that this problem is getting worse, said Kane, who stressed the importance of telling the truth in all situations, educational or not.
“More than ever, we’re branching out into many places,” Kane said. “There are fewer white people”
Jonathan Friedman, the other conference panelist, is the director of free speech and education at PEN America. Friedman uses powerful discourse and learning to direct efforts toward a more inclusive and informative society. He spoke primarily about the power of public education and conservative groups of people trying to dominate and reverse progress on diversity, inclusion and equity.
“It cannot be illegal to teach history to students who make them feel uncomfortable. The story is very uncomfortable; it’s meant to make you feel uncomfortable. It’s not to make us feel good, it’s to make us learn from our mistakes and avoid repeating historical parallels and mistakes we’ve made,” Friedman said. “For example, The 1619 Project is a banned book in Texas, but none of the books written by Adolf Hitler or white supremacy are banned nationwide.”
At Springfield College, where 21% of undergraduates identify as students of color, 3% of undergraduates are international students, and 23 countries are represented in the student population, there is growing diversity on campus. .
Clubs like GSA (Gender & Sexuality Alliance), Black Student Union, International Student Organization, Latinx Student Organization, and many more represent efforts to make Springfield College a diverse, inclusive, and equal place.
Springfield College also presents a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Award to members of the community who stand out as individuals who advocate for positive change and make efforts to improve diversity and inclusion here at Springfield. The award is given to a student, a staff member and a general member of the community.
At the end of the seminar, this year’s winners were announced: Paris Lizana, David McMahon and Ronn Johnson.
Lizana is currently a student and president of the Black Student Union. She is also vice-president of the Women of Power club and has participated in SEAT at the Table events, where she presented and informed students on four occasions on different social justice topics.
McMahon is currently on staff and serves as Director of Spiritual Life. He prioritizes his presence on campus by attending as many events as possible and is a diversity advisor, working with students to explore their identity.
Johnson, who died suddenly on January 15, left his mark on the Springfield College community. He worked to fund a citywide violence prevention task force, funded mobility and access efforts for children with disabilities in Western Massachusetts, and in 1998 founded the Brianna Fund for Physically Handicapped Children – named after her daughter.
Kane delivered his final remarks, reaffirming MLK’s role as an influencer on societal and racial issues – and its impact at Springfield College.
“Chaos or community are our options. King’s message was a message of hope,” Kane said. “A hope for a future of racial equality. Will we fight to get out of this? Or talk about it. We don’t have to agree with that, but we have to respect it. And this is how we learn to live in community, not in chaos.
Photo courtesy of Springfield College