Fifty years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his dream of a country united is still a work in progress. Central Michigan University senior Mateo Savedra and sophomore Nataia Calloway believe students are crucial in pursuing that dream.
Both students were finalists in Monday morning's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Oratorical Contest at CMU's CommUnity Peace Brunch at Finch Fieldhouse. This year's contest theme asked students to consider the influences that systematic, institutional racism and oppression have had on African-Americans since the civil rights movement and what progress has been made so far.
As they prepared to deliver their remarks, Savedra and Calloway considered the role of individuals in the fight against oppression and how the CMU community can further unity, understanding, equity and equality.
Existing in an imperfect state
Nine people shot and killed at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina; white supremacists protesting in Charlottesville, Virginia; unarmed black men killed by police — "this is a portrait of the United States in 2017," said Savedra. "We pretend that racism is an antiquity of the past. It's time to stop pretending."
Calloway said that while landmark events such as the civil rights movement and the election of a black president have improved life for African-Americans and other minority groups, "it's not nearly enough."
Becoming an agent of change
Savedra said participating in the oratorical competition allowed him to address concerns he has felt growing since January 2017. He said that recent killings of unarmed black men, imbalances in the criminal justice system, new voter ID laws and the number of white supremacists speaking out in public forums have created a climate of fear and uncertainty. He was inspired by King's remark that the great tragedy of his time was not the actions of bad people, but the "appalling silence of good people."
In January 2017, Savedra and Calloway were among a group of students at a forum to discuss ways to prevent hostility from becoming a problem at CMU. Together, the students formed A Mile in Our Shoes (AMOS). Their goal has been to develop programs to educate their peers about inclusion and multiculturalism.
"Tweeting and making Facebook posts about how bad things are doesn't make a difference," Savedra said. "Being an agent for change does. Things like following the news, keeping up with politics and joining an organization are simple ways to start.
"We have some phenomenal registered student organizations on campus full of young people eager to see the world improve."
Calloway said that students who want to change the world must act: "Awareness is only the first step to real change.
"Join an organization on campus that is working for change. Get educated about local issues and vote in your local elections – voting for the president isn't enough. Attend a protest."
Fighting ignorance with compassion
For Calloway, combating ignorance is the most important step in breaking down intolerance: "The more people understand what it's like to struggle as an underrepresented group in America, the more likely they are to join the fight against inequality."
She encouraged her fellow students to bring people with them to rallies, to invite them to join student organizations and to speak up in the face of oppression.
Calloway said King's message had broad appeal because he wasn't berating people for what they didn't know. He invited people to learn more, and his message was inclusive. Likewise, she believes groups like AMOS can gently introduce people to new ideas. The group will host a "Tunnel of Oppression" this week and an interactive exhibit on microagressions later this year.
"Most people have no idea they are doing anything wrong. We can help them become educated and empowered to end these things."
An incomplete picture of the world
For Savedra, multicultural awareness was part of growing up in a family that included grandparents who identified as Irish, Hungarian, Mexican and African-American. The perspectives of his family colored his life experiences. Some people experience life through the perspective of only one culture, Savedra said. "It's like looking at the world through one eye. You don't get the whole picture."
CMU makes it easy for students to expand their perspectives, Savedra said. He said programs through Multicultural Academic Student Services give students the opportunity to learn more about other cultures, and student organizations on campus host events throughout the year that are free and open to everyone.
Hope for tomorrow
In their speeches, both Savedra and Calloway pointed out numerous problems facing African-Americans and other underrepresented minorities. They both acknowledge that racism, oppression and intolerance are still part of being black in America.
"But the good news is, it doesn't have to stay that way," said Savedra. "Things can get better. That's where we come in."