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MLK tribute encourages students to cultivate positive change

Published on January 24, 2024

MLK tribute encourages students to cultivate positive change

Kevin Booker, Jr.
Kevin Booker, Jr. speaks with students at an MLK tribute event. 

In honor of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, Eastern’s Intercultural Center hosted a tribute to the renowned civil rights leader. Educator, motivational speaker and social justice advocate Kevin Booker, Jr. ’00 ’08 ’10 told the audience to “get comfortable being uncomfortable,” to address societal issues.  

“We need to understand where everyone is at,” he said, “and meet them there. We must do this together.” 

Booker had each "truth seeker," as he called audience members, approach someone they had not met before and introduce themselves. He then asked three questions for the pairs to discuss with each other: What significance does MLK Day hold for you? What is an issue in your community that you wish more people were talking about or working to fix? Finally, do you think King’s dream has been achieved? 

“How much time do you have?” was the reaction of Rodney Alexander, Jr., first vice president of the Windham-Willimantic branch of the NAACP. Alexander has long been advocating for racial equality. “We’ve grown too complacent,” he said. “We must expect (positive) change, and we must not settle for less.” 

“It was important to have honest and open conversation about how we can improve our community and advocate for those that may not have a voice,” said Joshua Sumrell, coordinator of the Intercultural Center.

The activity's aim was to encourage the audience to feel comfortable naming instances of discrimination and expressing their emotions about these experiences. It emphasized the importance of conversations about injustice and of holding institutions accountable for creating safe spaces for people of color.  

Students work in groups to determine steps for progress.

From left to right: Joshua Sumrell, Kevin Booker, Jr., and graduate intern Josiah Gardner

Booker instructed the audience to form groups and write down their ideas. “But we aren’t just going to talk about them,” he said. Instead, he encouraged them to act, following the example of King. To do so, he asked them to write down the steps they need to take and the people they need to work with to see improvements in their communities, whether on campus, in the broader Willimantic area or in their hometowns.  

Sumrell noted the applicability of Booker’s teachings to other areas of students' lives--where respectful conversations and thoughtful planning can be used at work, and in academic and personal pursuits. He said, “I am hoping that they took the message of togetherness and connection as a way to network with individuals on campus so we can make a difference in our community at Eastern.” 

“You’re here for a reason,” Booker said, “and we need you.” 

“It is important to not have students be the only voices to be change agents,” Sumrell said. “As part of the Eastern community, it is also equally important that we listen to our students’ concerns and make changes in the areas that we have influence in.

"If we don’t the have ability to, it’s important that we show up for our students across campus academically, personally and genuinely. We all have a duty on campus to create a sense of belonging and purpose for our students.” 

Written by Marcus Grant